Friday, December 15, 2017

On the Town (1949)

USA, 98 minutes
Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Writers: Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Jerome Robbins
Photography: Harold Rosson
Music: Leonard Bernstein, Roger Edens, Conrad Salinger
Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Alice Pearce, Florence Bates, Tom Dugan, Judy Holliday

With my ongoing Movie of the Year project now drifting into the '40s (and the '30s, and yes eventually even into the '20s), I'm finding myself with more catch-up to do—hence the longer periods between write-ups—and also some interesting and even surprising shifts in taste. A lot of movies were made everywhere then, especially in Hollywood, where these are the glory years. Yet except for a designated golden few from each year they are generally harder to track down and see. Netflix—whose DVD service has begun to fail in recent years anyway, and now appears to be shifting into attrition mode as subscribers shrink to minuscule numbers (they've never had anything like the DVD archive on streaming)—simply won't serve any longer as a single primary source. And YouTube may yet emerge as a reliable online repository. I've also developed other new sources such as Amazon Video and Warner Archive.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the last year has been a newfound taste for musicals—and film noir, and woman's pictures, and pirate movies, and others. But the biggest change is musicals. I haven't seen that many because in times past I couldn't turn away from them fast enough on TV and it was rare when anyone could talk me into looking at one all the way through. Of course, everyone knows Singin' in the Rain by now, currently the #12 greatest movie of all time according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? and safely one of the designated goldens for 1952. Maybe they also know On the Town (and even Take Me Out to the Ball Game, also from 1949). But they're new to me and I still can't resist the absurd comical heights they reach with their calculated fits of joy and tap dancing, these flights of pure physical pleasure. When people talk about the difference between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire as the former being more athletic, the latter more suave, that's true enough. But that difference is also more directly a function of emotional engagement. While Fred Astaire stays busy brushing lint from his tux, making dry witty remarks, and chuckling uneasily, Gene Kelly made a career out of wearing his stupid old American heart on his sleeve.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

"The Conversion of the Jews" (1958)

Story by Philip Roth not available online.

Philip Roth's comic anecdote came early in his career, published when he was 25, with themes and elements that have appeared in most of his work, notably the spectacle of Jews and Christians attempting to live together in New Jersey. It's skillfully done and a pleasure to read—he would get even better at language that is seductively easy to read, but he's already good here. The main charge of the story, however, strikes me as its most dated element now, which is the humiliation of forcing Jews to pray like Christians. Oscar "Ozzie" Freedman, who is 13 or 14, accomplishes this by threatening to jump to his death. It's all tied up with a poem by Andrew Marvell and biblical prophecy. In fact, if I understand things correctly, the parties most likely to be offended are the Catholics (using the term "in its broadest sense—to include the Protestants"), who might be inclined to see the actions of the Jews as mockery, if not indeed profanity. All of this is occasioned by Ozzie feeling the rabbi won't engage with him intellectually when he starts asking the kinds of questions people are always asking about religions. In this case, after the rabbi scoffs at the notion of a virgin birth, Ozzie wants to know why, if God is all-powerful, He couldn't impregnate a woman if He wanted to. The charge of the story is the profanity of the central event, or maybe I mean blasphemy. Threatening to jump from the synagogue roof, Ozzie forces the Jews witnessing the event, including especially the rabbi who won't take his questions seriously, to get on their knees and pray for the love of Jesus the Son of God. Ironically, the story has probably been losing power ever since it was published. It might have some charge to today's evangelicals, who might take it as some sign of formal End Times. I like to think that's an intellectual minority, but I probably have it exactly wrong. Anyway, I'm pretty sure none of them reads Philip Roth, let alone one of his early short stories. Roth is much more a novelist and I'm not even sure he's written that many short stories. So at best I'm going to have to file this under interesting (and entertaining) curiosity.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Top 40

1. The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk, "I Feel It Coming"
2. Skillet, "Back From the Dead"
3. Rihanna, "Love On the Brain"
4. Future, "Selfish"
5. Kamasi Washington, "Truth"
6. New Pornographers, "Whiteout Conditions"
7. Kendrick Lamar, "HUMBLE."
8. Romeo Santos, "Heroe Favorito"
9. Luis Fonsi feat. Justin Bieber, "Despacito (Remix)"
10. Kendrick Lamar feat. Zacari, "LOVE."
11. Maxwell, "Gods"
12. Future, "Mask Off"
13. Kevin Ross, "Long Song Away"
14. Keith Urban feat. Carrie Underwood, "The Fighter"
15. Tamar Braxton, "My Man"
16. Portugal. The Man, "Feel It Still"
17. Carl Craig, "Rock'n Latex"
18. Tiga, "Nonstop"
19. Treponem Pal, "Planet Claire"
20. Candi Carpenter, "Burn the Bed"
21. DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller, "Wild Thoughts"
22. Selena Gomez, "Fetish"
23. Miley Cyrus, "Malibu"
24. Childish Gambino, "Redbone"
25. Playboi Carti, "Magnolia"
26. LP, "Up Against You"
27. Joey Bada$$, "For My People"
28. Hailee Steinfeld, "Most Girls"
29. Strand of Oaks, "Hard Love"
30. Real Estate, "Darling"
31. Cardi B, "Bodak Yellow"
32. Lilly Hiatt, "Trinity Lane"
33. War on Drugs, "Up All Night"
34. Waxahatchee, "No Question"
35. Bleachers, "Don't Take the Money"
36. National, "The System Only Dreams in Darkness"
37. Kesha, "Praying"
38. Smiley, "Rara"
39. Wolf Alice, "Don't Delete the Kisses"
40. Kesha, "Woman"

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Nothing But Murder (1946)

This collection came late in the career of the amateur criminalist and essayist William Roughead, who lived and worked in Scotland as an attorney. Scads of his crime case studies were published for entertainment purposes from 1901 until past his death in 1952. This book came shortly after World War II, but the pieces are older, published for the first time in the US here and intended for an American market. Typically enough they're pretty good. Roughead has an interesting taste for crime, though he indulges a macabre aesthetic that can be too wryly cute by half. So it stumbles out of the gate with the silly overture of an imagined congress of notorious criminals judging one another on just such grounds. It's hollow graveyard laughter, attempting distance from the motivations that drive the project (whatever those motivations are exactly ... I can get a bit coy around the point myself). It's better when he gets down to the details of cases because he picks interesting ones. The first is about a group of stowaway boys who were forced to leave the ship and walk barefoot across an ice sheet back to shore. Two drowned in the process. Roughead's basic strategy is to lay out the facts of the case as brought to trial by the police and used by prosecutors, and then go to the trial transcript. Thus it shifts radically and can take some getting used to, but ultimately it makes these proceedings all the more vivid, reading the words of the witnesses. The longest piece here, "Locusta in Scotland," presents a history of poisoning in Scotland, from the 16th century to the 1920s. The cases become monotonous, but more interesting is the history of the crime, from the earliest determinations that it is indeed a crime through the various advances in detection and understanding symptoms. A separate essay details a case of poisoning in 1613 that peels away layer after layer of court intrigue under King James VI and I (the Bible rewrite guy). Frankly I got lost in that one, but it sounded like a lot of dirty business all the way around. Roughead's work is best approached on literary terms, rather than purely informational, because he has an eccentric vocabulary, he can really take his time getting to the point, and he's capable of paragraphs that run longer than a page (or two). I liked the first half of Nothing But Murder more than the second, but I suspect that's a matter of fatigue as much as anything. He's charming and digressive and often a pleasure. It doesn't matter if the crimes are 20th-century vintage or ancient, it's all still crime—that eternal human impulse. It's weirdly comforting in some way to read these pieces, as if the unflappable Roughead has set out to explain the boogie man once and for all. About time someone did.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Sans Soleil (1983)

France, 100 minutes, documentary
Director/writer/photography/music/editor: Chris Marker
With: Alexandra Stewart, Arielle Dombasle, Kim Novak, James Stewart, Deep Purple

I wouldn't exactly call Sans Soleil a difficult picture, but no documentary so preoccupied with memory, veracity, and the general problem of inattentiveness is ever going to be easy. Typically, the documentaries that make it into the top 100 of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? usually seem to have something a little extreme about them. Man With a Movie Camera is extremely exuberant, and Close-Up is extremely weird (and I think we decided it wasn't a documentary anyway). Shoah is extremely long. Sans Soleil is extremely opaque—or make that gnomic, cryptic, elliptical, or make that just personal, deeply. So personal it's hard to parse, as intended. "Sans soleil" is French for "sunless," meaning darkness, like fading memory. It's a one-man show of a veritable stream of consciousness free associating for 100 minutes, and if you can't make out a point, there's your point: sunless.

That doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable. Once past the expectation of narrative (leaping eagerly at scraps and anecdotes for the through thread), once over impatience to get on with it (very important), once you remember (again) you're looking at a movie, then it can be surprising, beautiful, witty, acerbic, very sharp, in small delicious bites. The one man is filmmaker Chris Marker, director, writer, cinematographer, and editor. He even wrote and/or performed much of the soundtrack. Marker traveled the world widely and filmed wherever he went. He had a gifted eye and a formidable intellect. The images are the best part of Sans Soleil, compelling, seductive, random, strained through filters and effects. They almost seem to edit themselves, while the words attempt to keep up. These images include film shot by others, such as a horrific scene of a giraffe being hunted and killed, or scenes from the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo (in fact, Marker's critical treatment of Vertigo is one of the best parts in a movie pebbly full of very good very small parts). In short, Sans Soleil is a compressed history of the eye of Chris Marker, as he recalls it, in parts.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

"Walking Out" (1980)

Read story by David Quammen online.

David Quammen's remarkable story is another fine entry in the man vs. nature type of adventure story. In fact, it reminds me of Jack London's "To Build a Fire" because it's a similar premise: a wintry scene in the woods threatens death if the protagonists aren't both smart and careful. Published much later in the century, Quammen's story also has a father-and-son element that is more typical of post-'60s generation gap dynamics. The main character is the 11-year-old boy David who is visiting his father in Montana. The parents are divorced, somewhat acrimoniously we understand from scattered clues, another familiar postwar element. The story is not attempting to invent anything new. It's just using what it has. So the father, who appears to have reinvented himself as a mountain man after the failed marriage, is pitifully needy for his son's approval, even as he overcompensates trying to impress him with his skills. For his part, the boy has little interest in being an outdoorsman. Off they go on a moose hunt, and it is isolated enough that they have to worry about things like bears and getting lost. On the last day of their brief foray into the woods, bad luck strikes. An unseasonal snowfall makes everything treacherous, and then some bad accidents happen. Now, severely injured and possibly bleeding out, they must get out of the woods and find help. Though the story goes to a basically unbelievable place in the end it is riveting all the way there. It's on the long side for a story, and it starts slow, but it holds interest first as a study of a father and son estranged against their will by circumstances, and then, once the snow falls, as a crackling adventure story. The language describing events as they happen is powerful and straightforward, but it's also good on what the boy is going through, and on what he sees his father going through. The point of view is the boy's, fading to omniscience for the details beyond his understanding. We are never inside the head of the father yet we come to know him well—even understanding him better than the boy, through his words and actions. The ending is a little overdetermined, and frankly hard to believe, with mishandled emphases. But you might disagree, and it hardly means getting there isn't worth the ride. This is a good one.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Monday, December 04, 2017

Lady Bird (2017)

I admit I've been suspicious of Greta Gerwig's long-trending indie queen popularity. She has appeared in movies I count among my favorites, notably Damsels in Distress, where she acquits herself well. Acquits herself well? She's one of the best parts if not practically carrying it. But she has also appeared in movies I'm less inclined to favor, such as Greenberg or Frances Ha, which already have imposing reputations but mostly looked like mannered indie-level exercises to me. She usually seems to be playing a version of the same character—a person slightly off, the kind people say marches to the beat of another drummer. That personality is still felt acutely in Lady Bird, Gerwig's directing debut and third or fourth screenplay. In fact, in many ways, Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, Brooklyn)—taking the title role as Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson—often seems to be doing a straight-up impersonation of Gerwig to put some of these scenes over. But that's about the end of any carping on my part. This is otherwise a tremendously heartening movie in so many good ways. It's a tender coming-of-age story, with obvious autobiographical details: set in Sacramento, in the early 2000s, Lady Bird's mother is a nurse and her father is a computer programmer struggling to survive in an industry prone to youth movements. Lady Bird, who turns 18 during the six or eight months of this story, is hungry for life and experience, ashamed of her family's modest means, compulsively trying to make it with cool kids, and committing her share of mistakes. At the heart of Lady Bird is a story of a difficult mother/daughter relationship, marked by fierce love and even fiercer alienation. Laurie Metcalf plays her mother, Marion, and she is fine. There's no shortage of quirky situations and hipster affectation on display here—among other things, Gerwig has a rock critic's taste and sense for ironically programming the soundtracks of lives—but what I like best are the scenes between people, between family and friends. They are sharply observed, develop at their own pace, almost always ring true, and they can leave you wrung out more than once in a reasonably short movie. All things considered, this is an exciting directing debut.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Shock Doctrine (2007)

In my typical poky way, it took me awhile to get to Naomi Klein's slashing political / economic analysis of global neoliberalism across the second half of the 20th century, and by the time I did it all might have been obviated anyway by a turn toward nativist (I use the term ironically) authoritarianism in the US, a turn that suddenly makes neoliberalism look not so bad. That's one of their tricks, because neoliberalism is actually pretty bad. At some point in the past 50 years our wealthy friends and neighbors appear to have decided Keynesianism was a problem—probably because it worked, in terms of leveling and providing economic opportunity for more folks. Neoliberalism, in its conception, bases most of its hoodoo on the mystical magical wisdom of "The Market," and makes those folks work a lot harder and longer—generations and centuries—before it does much good, if it ever does. But at least The Shock Doctrine is still a good read, if you don't mind getting mad every day.

Maybe the biggest jolt is how Klein keeps finding ways to light up the word "shock." She goes all the way back to the coming of electroshock therapy (EST) after World War II, a treatment regime designed to atomize one personality and replace it with another (subsequently discredited though EST has been somewhat recredited in recent years, as the understanding of its effects has changed). Klein's poetic riffing on the point might even seem fanciful, at least until she starts to lay out the kinds of systematic torture practiced under Augusto Pinochet and other dictators in South America in the '70s. Partly what's so horrifying is that they were all doing the same things—the levels of centralization suggested by that are chilling and, yes, shocking. And much of it involved electricity.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

"The Valiant Woman" (1947)

Story by J.F. Powers not available online.

This story by J.F. Powers is something more than an anecdote, but mostly it feels cute, focused on the relationship between a Catholic priest and his housekeeper. It proceeds from a church-approved view of priests as somewhat bumbling and inept in everyday things, implying they are distracted by their higher callings. It's a precious view of priests, especially the way it plays out in the story. The housekeeper, Mrs. Stoner, is a shrewish type in her late 30s or early 40s, who is subtly taking control of Father Firman's social life. The dynamic, of course, is the work husband and wife, two people who work together and, though they are often married to others and not having an affair, behave at work like a married couple. The dynamic between them in this story is well-known among Father Firman's community of priests and church workers. Father Nulty, who visits him on his birthday, teases him by humming "Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine." Father Firman and Mrs. Stoner have an unhealthy and unpleasant relationship, but it's played off as comical, which is why I keep coming back to the word "cute." Powers has the dynamic right, I think. They play cards at night after any visitors have left, and it's a painful ritual of passive-aggressive confrontation. On the night of the story, Mrs. Stoner wins—it seems as if she might win more often than not. Father Firman appears powerless to do anything to mitigate her ever-encroaching control. She is young enough that she could well outlive him. This could go on for the rest of his life. He is obviously miserable with it. But the tone of this story is more or less that it's funny—unfortunate, yes, perhaps even deplorable, but ultimately the stuff of laughter. I'm not convinced Powers is able to get past a certain Catholic fatalism because ultimately it seems to champion a kind of unyielding stoicism about circumstance, which I'm not sure often goes to good places, as a general rule. This is Catholicism before Vatican II so it's very old school. For the most part it feels unquestioning of precepts we are very skeptical about now. It's an interesting curiosity, but not much to it beyond that.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Sunday, November 26, 2017

"Moonwalk" (1992)

Story by Susan Power not available online.

I thought this story by Susan Power had a lot of nice elements but somehow came out to less than the sum of them. Margaret Many Wounds is on her deathbed and her two daughters, Evie and Lydia, are attending her. Evie left the Indian reservation that is their home many years before this story and has traveled from Minneapolis to be with her (though it's never named, the reservation seems likely to be Pine Ridge). The story is mostly told from the point of view of Evie, who has always felt she is the least favorite of her mother. The father died five years earlier, at which time Lydia stopped speaking. All of this is taking place in July 1969, as astronauts reach the surface of the moon for the first time in history. It's a nice touch, at least in theory, but also seems like the last straw in terms of piling on, especially when Margaret's spirit, shortly after she dies in bed, appears on the moon on TV, dancing, and only her 5-year-old grandson notices. The story is strongest when it simply observes the deathwatch, the way that families squabble, laugh, and carry on the way they do as much when they're in crisis as not. The shadow of death passes over the living, but the living can't help being what they are. There was some sense of resolution, especially between Margaret and Evie, but too often this story goes vague when it most needs to be concrete and specific. So overall it doesn't work for me, but in its parts it comes so close. I wanted to know a lot more about the dynamics between these principals, the mother and her two daughters, but all we get are broad strokes. Evie's resentment and flight, Lydia's decision to be mute, and especially who and what Margaret was to them. We get some sense but it often feels familiar and almost trite, or predictable. The spirit dance on the lunar surface is likely intended to remedy some of that. But that merely seems fanciful, the kind of thing even the best writers can only occasionally manage. Wish this were better—the death scene particularly offers many possibilities not lived up to here.

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

Friday, November 24, 2017

Fearless (1993)

USA, 122 minutes
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Rafael Yglesias
Photography: Allen Daviau
Music: Maurice Jarre, Henryk Gorecki
Editors: William M. Anderson, Armen Minasian, Lee Smith
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Rosie Perez, Tom Hulce, John Turturro, Benicio Del Toro, Deirdre O'Connell, John de Lancie

(Earlier version for the Facebook countdown here.)

A couple weeks ago I was talking about Jaws and how the movie doesn't work for me partly because I'm unmoved by its central phobia. The case of Fearless is similar but more complicated. In the first place, I'm crazy about this movie. It's one of my favorites. I have been amazed by it since the first time it laid me flat in a theater and I have never gone more than a few years since without looking at it again. It's not because I'm afraid of air flight crashes, another popular phobia I don't share. But Fearless is not really a movie about air flight crashes, even though one of them is what drives all the action. Because Fearless is such a careful, beautiful, and nuanced picture, it was even more unfortunate that another movie about air flight crashes, Alive, was released the same year. Together they became, oh yeah, those two movies about air flight crashes, I always get them mixed up, which one has cannibalism?

The other one. It's the other one that has cannibalism—or so I understand, as I haven't seen it. I also haven't seen We Are Marshall, Flight, Con Air, Passenger 57, or a single one of the Airport movies. But I have seen the star-studded NPR-inflected Oscar-bait Hollywood project Fearless enough times to know things by heart. Look, Fearless has its problems. It's arguably touchy-feely to a fault, set in the Bay Area with sensitive liberals and psychotherapy culture as far as the eye can see. Its central preoccupation—getting saved, with all the multiplicities of what that can mean—is at once vague and trite. Indeed, the whole thing turns on two key lines of dialogue: "This is it. This is the moment of my death" and "I need you to save me." How many movies are named Fearless anyway? I see a couple handfuls at least, including a new TV series and a Jet Li project.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

"Flowering Judas" (1930)


Katherine Anne Porter's story is set in Mexico during revolutionary times. It's a murky but cosmopolitan scene. Our main character, Laura, is Anglo. A vaguely menacing character, Braggioni, is Italian. And there are Indians, Poles, Romanians, others. Already I get a hit of the surreal sense of Latin American literature, or culture, a kind of acceptance of the absurd that requires no discussion. Laura is frequently described in nun-like terms, and she dresses and behaves modestly. Braggioni is interested in her—courting her, even, but not in any way that she appears able to decline. She's in a situation, somehow, where her best choice may be to go along with it for the time being. Her occupation is described as teaching Indian children. Braggioni serenades her, singing and playing a guitar. "She knows what Braggioni would offer her, and she must resist tenaciously without appearing to resist, and if she could avoid it she would not admit even to herself the slow drift of his intention." Braggioni was some kind of commanding soldier in the revolution, grounded in carnal realities and equations of power. Despite Laura's modest manner and reserve, or perhaps because of them, Braggioni lusts for her: "he wishes to impress this simple girl who covers her great round breasts with thick dark cloth, and who hides long, invaluably beautiful legs under a heavy skirt." Laura is more than a teacher—she obviously has a stake and specific personal reasons to be there, attending union meetings and visiting political prisoners. Even if she were interested in a relationship she probably wouldn't have time—but, again, she appears to have limited choice, beyond those for any Anglo woman in that time and place. As we come to learn, she is also somehow involved in subversive activity. There's a strong but fleeting suggestion that she may have provided the means for a political prisoner to commit suicide. There are many layers to reality in this story, and tearing one layer away also can have the effect of resetting reality to a new ground. Laura is afraid of Braggioni's vindictiveness, which could leave her even more vulnerable in a situation she seems more committed to than ever. The story ends with a bad dream Laura has after going to bed. There's a sense there are many days and nights like this still ahead of her—and many already behind her. The language and images are precision-fitted, and altogether it's a pretty good story.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

I tried to go into Blade Runner 2049 with an open mind, even though I'm inclined to be suspicious of all sequels, reboots, and the like, I'm really not convinced of anything yet about director Denis Villeneuve, I had gleaned enough about the response to know it's already considered a disappointment and commercial flop, and last but not least I knew it was nearly three hours going in. Four strikes, you're out, man. And there were more red flags too, one each for Ridley Scott, Ryan Gosling, and Harrison Ford, each a problem for different reasons. I'm officially tired of Ford's farewell tour of his career greatest hits, after the Star Wars reboot, another Indiana Jones on the way, and who knows what else. Philip K. Dick's name comes after all of the above in the credits, which is probably as it should be because the whole thing is not very Dickian at all anymore. It is Ridley Scottian, and Harrison Fordian, and maybe even young Ryan Goslingian before it is Dickian. But Blade Runner 2049 is Villeneuvian more than anything by way of his indulgence for high concept and tricksy plot developments, previously seen in Incendies and Arrival (at least). Sicario is the best and most exciting I've seen by him so far, looking for its complexities in the intricate levels of power in the cross-border drug trade, with everything else straightforward and somehow achieving a unique lucidity. Blade Runner, of course, is all concept and nothing straightforward, as received, and with the franchise now openly abandoning Dick and developing in other ways. It lifts a page from the Battlestar Galactica playbook and turns our tale of corporatism and human simulacrums into a story about robots interbreeding and giving birth, as opposed to being manufactured. This, you see—being born—is the dividing line between having a soul and not having one. It is all very busy building to a Big Reveal, which I admit seemed to play fair by all the rules I understand in these games of narrative peekaboo (and note that I'm not giving anything away). Yet it amounted to nothing—much like the reveal in Arrival, something garbled about perception and time and sadness. Blade Runner 2049 is long and feels every minute. Everything good about it is better in any one of the three or four cuts Ridley Scott already took at the original. At least it's beautiful. This franchise is a mess. Philip Dick wept.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Sacred Fount (1901)

Henry James apparently disavowed this short but interminable novel, declining to include it in a comprehensive 1908 collection of his work. Whatever else it is, The Sacred Fount is difficult and annoying, that's for sure. Even the typically anodyne Wikipedia has a note of impatience in its summary: "[A]fter a while, the narrator's theories begin to drive everybody, including the reader, a little nuts." Yes, and what's more, as usual, finding the antecedents to the pronouns is the hard part, with generous portions of "that to which he had earlier referred" and the like. The consensus appears to be that this nuanced narrator is overly interested in various sexual affairs going on behind the scenes at a weekend gathering in the country, and that might indeed be what this novel is about. I'm struck, however, that the basic clue appears to be who has aged among the weekend attendees, and who, improbably, has grown more youthful. Some of these people are 40 and look 25, that is, but their descriptions are rendered in such excruciating detail that I'm halfway willing to believe they actually are younger, and this is some kind of science fiction twist (after all, we've seen that James likes detective and horror stylings). "The sacred fount" is not sex, as most take it, but literally the thing Ponce de Leon was looking for. These richies have a line on it. Although that doesn't explain some of the unnatural aging of some of the other characters, so fuck that. The novel is probably short enough it could be mistaken for a Dick Francis in mass market paperback, but don't let that fool you. You're going to want to hurl this one across the room frequently, and you can take that as a recommendation underlining James's own instinct to avoid it—I read it so you don't have to—or perhaps you can take it as a personal challenge. After all, it's so short. It does have a kind of spooky Twilight Zone air somehow, as if the narrator is the only one truly alive there and the others come to life only when he engages them in conversation. Otherwise they are like murmuring extras in party and dinner scenes in movies like Last Year at Marienbad. If you're going to read The Sacred Fount, see if you don't agree with me that there really is some kind of potion or elixir these wealthy privileged characters are sharing with (and/or denying to) one another. They are visibly becoming younger even over the course of the weekend. In another week they might be teenagers. What the point of that could possibly be, I admit, is not a question I'm ready to answer yet. One theory that occurred to me is that James read Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray and it made him mad with jealousy. Following this came arguably his greatest period of work.

"interlocutor" count = 14 / 172 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

Saturday, November 18, 2017

87th Precinct directory

87th Precinct: 11 books to read first
Tricks (1987)
The Con Man (1957)
The Empty Hours (1962)
Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here (1971)
Killer's Choice (1957)
So Long As You Both Shall Live (1976)
King's Ransom (1959)
Poison (1987)
Lady, Lady I Did It (1961)
Fuzz (1968)
Cop Hater (1956)

List of reviews in series order after the jump.

Fiddlers (2005)

I don't know for sure that Ed McBain knew this would be the last novel in his 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, but he probably knew at least that it was approximately the 55th. McBain was also known as Evan Hunter, but his real name was Salvatore Albert Lombino and he was a pro to the end. The case here turns on a series of murders that are linked by the gun and method used—a Glock and two shots to the face. The title returns to one of his characteristic titling strategies, a single word played various ways. One of the victims here plays violin professionally, and the killer complains that all his victims fiddled with his life. It's decently constructed if a little rickety. There's a great joke here when Meyer Meyer confronts the killer. McBain certainly seems to be making a point of including everyone (and, interestingly, mentioning many of their ages). So Genero is here, and Eileen Burke, and even Nellie Brand, the prosecuting attorney who often showed up conducting formal interviews at the ends of his books. It's a little bit like the last episode of Seinfeld that way. I was distracted by some of the details about age that were disclosed. For example, Steve Carella's twin children, Mark and April, are fixed at 13 years old. They were born in the second of three novels McBain published in 1959 ('Til Death). Similarly, Bert Kling is identified as being 33 and we first saw him promoted as a raw rookie in the second of three novels McBain published in 1956 (The Mugger). He wasn't 17—I remember him being more like 23 or 24, or perhaps 21—so it's evident that time streams across the whole series are somewhat flexible from character to character. I can't say it's a surprise, as the amazing floating ages of Mark and April alone have always led to certain dislocations of perception. Kling also takes one more relationship pratfall in this one, with troubling aspects of his personality revealed again. But he's also made out to be a martyr, with his age specified. In a way, a sad way, his whole life turns out to be a joke. But Fiddlers involves a lot of wistful sadness anyway, some on McBain's part and some on my own, as I felt the ending of the whole thing close in. Is it flawed? Of course. In fact, as I've worked on putting together a short list of the best from the series, I've been dogged by the lack of consistency even within single novels. And the larger project in turn is brought down a little by a sense of dead ends and missed opportunities. Sure, he could have done more. Like Oskar Schindler, we all could. But 54 (or 55) books, any one of which will fly fine on an airplane, is not bad. Not bad at all.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Frumious Bandersnatch (2004)

Like most of the later novels in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, The Frumious Bandersnatch is loose and uneven, with some aspects given more thoughtful attention than others. McBain concocts a plot based on Lewis Carroll and hip-hop. Most of the energy is spent on the first very long chapter, which details a sensational kidnapping that happens to be captured by a TV crew. A new performing talent, Tamar Valparaiso, is about to release a debut album, a concept album which riffs on Carroll's "Jabberwocky." (I'm not sure whether McBain knew it, but there was a '60s psychedelic rock band from San Francisco called the Frumious Bandersnatch, whose members went on to play with Steve Miller and/or Journey.) At the launch party for the album, on a boat in the harbor, Valparaiso is kidnapped in a daring, brazen, etc., and we're off and running. The jurisdiction of the crime falls to the 87th, but because it's a kidnapping the FBI is involved. Our usual hero Steve Carella is dispatched to work with them. But there are tensions because the FBI has no respect for local cops. Inevitably Carella shows them how wrong they are. Once again, Fat Ollie Weeks is here because McBain likes writing about him. He has some unconnected scenes as he starts to date a uniform officer, Patricia Gomez. Because she's Hispanic, Fat Ollie has to confront his own bigotry. It's pretty much predictable but there's a surprising moment at the end of one of their dates. Meanwhile, the main case takes an ugly turn at the end—McBain actually finds a new way to be cruel with the fate of the singer. Overall the Carroll element is weak, most of it built into the singer and her album. But McBain randomly inserts Carrollisms all the way, to keep the concept freshened and perhaps out of appreciation for the always strangely lyrical nonsense syllables. Otherwise it's all familiar elements present and accounted for, e.g., the late humanizing of Fat Ollie. Bert Kling and his African-American surgeon girlfriend Dr. Sharyn Cooke get some scenes. McBain's voice is still engaging, but he's less energetic, more prone to dated ways of thinking. Not bad if you're getting to all of them.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Fat Ollie's Book (2002)

I've been through nearly all of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain now, and it is finally just dawning on me that Fat Ollie Weeks is McBain's favorite character in the whole thing after only Steve Carella. Which, in turn, raises interesting questions about McBain's own Jekyll and Hyde personality tendencies. Carella is a boy scout practically as good as it's possible for a human being to be. And Fat Ollie is nearly the opposite. He's fat, he's a slob, he doesn't go by the book, and he's a bigot. The only thing they have in common is they're both good detectives. But heck, Fat Olllie doesn't even work for the 87th Precinct. He's always been part of the neighboring 88th. He came along in the '70s and then just never went away. It was confusing not least because there was already one outspoken racist turd, Andy Parker, who was always part of the series. He's even in this one. Unlike Parker, Fat Ollie is smart and entertaining, though he tends to be despicable before anything else. But McBain evidently saw something redeemable in him, made him slightly more vulnerable in places, and set him loose. This book is his great moment, more or less. He's hot on his own big case, the murder of a politician, and incidentally trying to recover the manuscript of a novel he has written, Report to the Commissioner, which was stolen with his briefcase. It's the only copy he has so he's a little desperate. Fortunately, the thief is also a character in the case, so that means we get to see sections of it. It is actually funny, which means McBain accomplished the feat of writing funny too, no easy thing. What he did not accomplish, however, was writing funny and writing a decent mystery story, let alone police procedural. This is all for the laughs, and they are there, but it also feels like a wasted 87th Precinct story. It's late in the series, when McBain was getting sentimental, injecting more reminders of past cases, and outright reminiscing. Fat Ollie's Book just kind of lays there, until the excerpts from Fat Ollie's book come along, and they are entertaining. Some of that is because it's such paper-thin recasting of reality in the 87th Precinct world, such as Fat Ollie hiding his identity by making his first-person narrator / detective a woman named Olivia Wesley Watts (as opposed to Oliver Wendell Weeks). Some of it is because he's trying to skate by his own grammatical ignorance. After asking a rhetorical question, for example, Fat Ollie's narrator goes on: "I guess you know better than me, [Mr. Commissioner]. Or perhaps even better than I." And some of it is just because it's all so absurd. On the other hand, I'm not sure Fat Ollie's Book would be funny at all to someone not familiar with the series. Even if you are, it's still not one to hurry to get to.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nocturne (1997)

Nocturne may not feel as tired as other late entries in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain—as tired, I say. It's still tired compared to titles before about 1980. The mystery story is complicated too, and gets hard to follow. One of McBain's favorite jokes here—he goes to it at least three times—involves people talking about that movie Alfred Hitchcock wrote called The Birds. Then other characters say they don't think Hitchcock wrote it. In fact, of course, McBain wrote it 35 years earlier under his Evan Hunter pseudonym. Another running joke starts with the death of the primary victim, gunned down point-blank with two shots to the heart. Most times this comes up someone says they saw that movie, and someone else says they don't think that's what it was called. It sounds like the reference is to One From the Heart, which was 15 years old at the time, but who knows? Happens in passing and never explained. The main case involves an old woman who is shot to death along with her cat. Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes are on the case, and yes, once again, Fat Ollie Weeks shows up working a case that might be related. He's not that offensive this time. Mostly he just works his case. The old woman was formerly a celebrated concert pianist brought low by arthritis and nagging hearing problems. Her granddaughter is also a pianist, but not as talented and more in the cocktail lounge style. The more I summarize the plot points the more contrived it looks. Cruel high school football players—or psychotic, really—are also on the town, preying on the vulnerable, though it's mostly played for laughs. That's the case Fat Ollie is working. Step away from McBain's storytelling voice and the jokes are not funny at all. Maybe that's a continuing problem, especially with these later ones. What once seemed dark and sardonic humor inflecting the action has turned steadily into easy cynicism, with exaggerations. People are bad enough. You don't have to exaggerate that. Save this for later, or read the series in order. Either way, this one can wait.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Mischief (1993)

Though it's another Deaf Man episode, this police procedural in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain was more competent and engaging than I expected. It has numerous cases besides the Deaf Man story, and is also one of the very biggest entries by page count. The balance helps. More than anything, however, Mischief is an attempt at a statement on race in the wake of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riot which unfortunately falls short. There is a rap group here, Spit Shine—to start with, that strikes me as a terrible name. McBain's understanding of hip-hop is essentially stillborn. But at least he's trying? I liked the detective pairings in this one and how McBain used them to explore the chemistry of the characters. With McBain actively addressing both racial tension and political correctness, inevitably there will be wincing. Steve Carella, of course, gets the Deaf Man case, with Arthur Brown, the chronically underutilized African-American detective, here rotated more toward the front. Bert Kling and Andy Parker work an unlikely case of a serial killer. Someone is murdering graffiti artists (which McBain calls graffiti "writers"—I don't think I've ever heard that term). Parker used to be the chief designated racist in the series until Fat Ollie Weeks came along, but McBain still reaches for him as needed for the extra helping of obnoxious bigotry. Parker is always a reliable source of wincing, both for his sake and McBain's. Parker and his escapades are bad enough (very bad) so next to him Kling gets to play the good cop role, though he's often not a good cop. Mischief is also where Kling first meets a later love interest, Sharyn Cooke, an African-American forensics physician and surgeon. In many ways, the case that Kling and Parker are working is the A story here, though ultimately the Deaf Man is reserved for the finish—another elaborate crime with taunting clues as we go. In the social realism department, Meyer Meyer and Cotton Hawes are investigating seniors with dementia who are being dumped around the city. They have no ID and don't know who they are. If Mischief is dated and painful at least it is dated and painful in intriguing little ways, incidentally offering a profile of a white man with all the best intentions attempting to understand racial issues, and failing. I sympathize a little, because I'm sure I make my own mistakes, but that doesn't mean it isn't painful. At least it's a decent police procedural.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Fuzz (1968)

I got to this entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain late, partly because it's another odd bird as commercial product. Is this some matter of unusual holders of publishing rights? Even the kindle version is more expensive than most, which is the kind of problem seen more often in the 87th Precinct novels from the '90s and later. Fuzz was made into a movie in 1972, set in Boston and starring Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch, which might explain it. McBain wrote the screenplay using his Evan Hunter pseudonym. I haven't seen the movie. One of the plot lines is about teenagers who are hunting homeless people and setting them on fire, and shortly after the movie was released a number of copycat incidents occurred in Boston and Miami, for which the picture was blamed. That might explain it too, as similar problems followed release of A Clockwork Orange a year earlier and that movie was banned in London as a result. At any rate I'm glad it took a little while to get to it because Fuzz is actually a pretty good one, much better than the later titles I've been getting around to lately. It's short, barely 200 pages, but juggling three separate stories. The main case is another Deaf Man episode, with heavy emphasis on the masterful criminal masterminding, conducted with great mastery. As always, his antics are exaggerated to superheroic proportions. Here he is killing Isola city officials (with the greatest of ease) and demanding increasingly high extortion amounts to stop doing it. So it's a mixed bag—the Deaf Man episodes are always comic book jive, though Fuzz is not as bad as some of the others (notably his perfectly unbelievable introduction in The Heckler). The other two cases—the arson assaults on the homeless, and a weird stick-up plot that's there mainly to service the Deaf Man resolution—are more or less weak sauce, but McBain's writing is more vivid and freewheeling even than usual. Basically, it feels like he had more fun writing it. Whether it's worth paying the collectible premium is another matter, but you can easily enough get your hands on it for $10 or less.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Doll (1965)

The 20th novel in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain comes with a few mysteries of its own outside the covers of the book. Though copies are easily enough obtained, it takes a little extra work because presently it is out of print and there is no kindle edition. Doll is unusually violent, even for McBain, but not so much you'd think it would be just abandoned this way. The paperback I tracked down was printed in the US, but obviously edited for UK readers, at least in terms of its quotation marks, if not the variant spellings. Who knows? Anyone? It opens on a woman being slashed to death while her toddler daughter plays in the next room. The woman is divorced and a successful model, but with a dark secret to hide. It's an early use of a single-word title worked all different ways across the story. The dead woman is a model, or "doll," and her daughter plays with a doll during the murder, the doll that eventually breaks the case open. Other strange things: the much more grim tone than normal—very little of the light-hearted banter. Another would-be death of Steve Carella. A still grieving and totally broken-down Bert Kling, who is becoming the kind of bad cop everyone recognizes as such (compared with later in the series, when his lapses seem to be intended more on the order of overzealous bad form). In fact, it's so bad with Kling that he is booted off the squad. Temporarily, obviously—I'm throwing spoiler warnings to the wind here because Doll is just such an unusual entry in the series. Looking up fan reviews on Goodreads, I see that many consider it one of the best. The bad things are very bad here—heroin addiction and torture are more elements in play. But it does not feel like McBain is having much fun. He's not straining for effect here. It's just dark. But it makes me wonder about the circumstances of writing and publishing it. Is it really the high level of depravity that's keeping it out of print and off the kindle reading programs? I thought that stuff was more the norm these days. Did McBain himself have some say (or some specific lack of it) in suppressing it? Is it even fair to say suppressed? They feel like the real mysteries here.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Jaws (1975)

USA, 124 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Photography: Bill Butler
Music: John Williams
Editor: Verna Fields
Cast: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb

A few weeks ago, catching up on horror backlog during the Halloween season, I got a chance to see Frozen (from 2010, not to be confused with the Disney animation from 2013), which is pretty nifty and actually much better than I expected. Two particular things I noticed: the name of one of the production companies involved is A Bigger Boat, and in an interview director and writer Adam Green declared—tongue no doubt in cheek, but still—that he wanted to make a movie that would do for chairlifts at ski resorts what Jaws did for sharks at summer beaches. This in turn impressed two more things on me: the enduring impact of Jaws, and my basic immunity to its premise.

I mean that I'm not afraid of sharks, never have been, and never give them a thought. (Ditto chairlifts.) It's not like they're zombies or evil spirits or something. But I've watched people seized by the delicious agonies of the fear of them nearly all my life. That's just one more long-term effect of Jaws—adding sharks to the pantheon of classic movie monsters and/or gnawing human phobias (piranha too for that matter). The creature from Black Lagoon has nothing on these beasts, except similarly beautiful underwater footage. Over 40 years later we have a ridiculous Sharknado franchise going and some pretty good movies like The Shallows too. And they're all about sharks, which actually pose less danger to us individually than radical Islamic terrorists, tipping furniture, slips in the bathtub, or air flight crashes—probably combined.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

"The Cask of Amontillado" (1846)

Read story by Edgar Allan Poe online.

Edgar Allan Poe's dank tale of revenge, murder, and appalling cruelty is just about the perfect short story—a dark horror play with a twist ending and all elements laid in to support it. I'm about to give it away any minute so go read it if you haven't because of course that's where it is told best. In Italy, during carnival time, the first-person narrator Montresor lures a friend he has come to despise down to the wine cellar of his palazzo, offering to share a very good new wine he says he has acquired at a good price, an amontillado. Montresor's friend, Fortunato (O irony), is already half-drunk from the revels, wearing a jester's costume. The story, though it is dark and cruel, is also funny in many ways. Montresor's rage about Fortunato's unspecified "thousand injuries" and "insult," with his description of the rules for administering revenge, are as comical as they are mad. At one point, Fortunato challenges Montresor's claim to belong to the masons by asking him for the secret sign. Montresor reaches into his cloak and produces a trowel. On first reading, we don't know the significance of this any more than Fortunato and the gesture is more strange than explanatory. Later, when we know better, it is somehow even more funny—something about the mystique of the masons, perhaps, juxtaposed with the homely construction tool, momentarily like a scene from Laurel and Hardy. The setting in the catacombs of a palazzo is perfect—evocative of the 19th-century American view of Europe as a moldering graveyard, decaying and debased. Montresor's crime is impossibly perfect. He plays Fortunato with precision, luring him deeper and deeper into the catacombs. "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser," Montrosor notes early, later confirming that his crime is still unpunished after 50 years. In fact, it's all a bit too perfect. It might just be an impotent daydream after all. But it's a remarkable feat indeed to lull us as readers enough that we take sympathetic satisfaction from the crime as it goes down, relishing the pleasure of it with Montresor, though we have no idea what Fortunato did to deserve it. We see some ambiguous, potentially dismissive attitude by Fortunato toward Montresor, but not much. Mostly we are caught up in the seething rage and clinical precision of Montresor's monstrous deed. "[The wrong] is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong," Montresor also mentions as preface, and later he sees to that as well. Fortunato knows what is happening to him and, most importantly, by whom. "The Cask of Amontillado" might even be better than some of the revenge fantasies I've played in my own head. Don't miss those jingling bells on Fortunato's carnival cap.

"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe (Library of America)

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)

This is the longest of the slave narratives gathered up in the Library of America volume, just over 200 printed pages. It's also from the 18th century, published in 1789. It has nothing to say about the American Revolution, but then Equiano's experiences in the North American colonies were limited and among his worst, in a life full of misfortune. He identified more as a European and lived his slavery years in the West Indies. I say his life was full of misfortune, but compared with many he had a good life. He chronicles some of the depravities he sees—he has particular revulsion for manufactured articles such as iron muzzles and thumbscrews. But what's more often shocking to me is the utter lack of value of Africans in society, except as property, in terms of money. For example, a black man's testimony couldn't be taken against a white man. It was against the law. Against the law. Thus, when Equiano is robbed and swindled, as he often is, he has no legal recourse whatsoever. I know it's arguably still like that now with the way many police departments operate, but at least there's the fig leaf of formal laws. At that time, in that place, it's as if Equiano's existence were simply negated. Another interesting theme I hadn't anticipated, but could have, is a continuing preoccupation with kidnapping. For obvious reasons it is actually the central fact of his life and many African lives, often occurring, as in Equiano's case, in childhood. He was 11 when he was kidnapped with his older sister, separated from her, and heartbreakingly reunited with her briefly. Then he never sees or hears of her again, nor indeed any of his family. As with the previous slave narrative, by James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Equiano also focuses on his Christian awakening and/or rebirth. It's certainly easier to see the appeal of religion in the context of 18th-century slavery. What I like about both of these first two memoirs is the sunny disposition of their authors. They are enduring levels of pain, privation, and danger I can barely imagine. They see a great many terrible things, and they are affected profoundly. But somehow they carry on. If it's from belief in the goodness of Christ, well, all right. I'll take those morals if a person really lives them. Equiano lived them, there's no question of it. There are always questions when it comes to text. I understand that. Even though it's the longest one here, it feels compressed and "edited for space." He lived a long, full, aware, and, yes, interesting life, and he left us this account of it as well. Wonderful stuff.

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

Thursday, November 02, 2017

"Home" (1978)

Story by Jayne Anne Phillips not available online.

Jayne Anne Phillips tells another story, which like "The Heavenly Animal" is also from her third collection of stories, Black Tickets, about fractured relationships in a modern media world. The first-person narrator, who goes unnamed, is 23 years old and recently returned home to live with her mother for an unspecified time. "I ran out of money and I wasn't in love, so I came home to my mother," is how she explains the situation. They watch the evening news most nights and worry about the general health of Walter Cronkite. Her mother is a professional, an "educational administrator," who works during the day and comes home and knits in front of the TV at night. They watch a lot of TV and attempt in various ways to connect. And they do connect, but they are also separated by the daughter's interest in exploring her sexuality. It looks—and not only to her mother—as if she is sinking into a life of serial monogamy, forever bewildered by an inability to forge something lasting. For the mother, it's alarming and depressing to see her daughter going that direction. The daughter, for her part, thinks her mother is just an old square. Her mother and father are divorced and there's some sense the father is dead now—a ne'er-do-well at best, as there is also a vague and ambiguous suggestion of sexual abuse. The narrative basically turns on the daughter inviting an old boyfriend for a visit. For the sake of the mother they stay in separate rooms, but they meet later for sex, which wakens and distresses the mother. The visiting ex-boyfriend is obviously a terrible relationship for the daughter—he's in another relationship and just taking advantage of an opportunity, though he's also sympathetic in other ways. I'm tempted to call the story dated because in many ways it could only take place in the '70s, but there's something broader and more universal about it than just that. It's a great example of a major direction for the short story after the '60s, with stories of broken families in American suburbs and a certain spiritual malaise (not actually Jimmy Carter's turn of phrase, but close enough), which lingered into the Reagan years and well beyond: divorce, TV, meaningless sex, temporary living conditions, and a grinding generation gap are typical elements. Phillips makes a pretty good job of it here, much better I think than "The Heavenly Animal."

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"The Heavenly Animal" (1975)

Story by Jayne Anne Phillips not available online.

This story by Jayne Anne Phillips has a lot of good ideas but never quite executes on them. The premise is so familiar to its times as to nearly verge on cliché, but I don't think that's the problem exactly. It's a baby boomer generation gap story about a young woman in her mid-20s, Jancy, whose parents have divorced acrimoniously and now she is stuck with the shattered pieces and ongoing fallout, still living at home with her mother. Her father refuses to visit or "even step on the grass" of the home he once shared with his ex-wife and Jancy. He lives only 10 blocks away and honks when he drives by and sees Jancy's car there. He expresses his love for her by making sure her car is maintained. Meanwhile, Jancy is footloose and often troubled by tormented relationships. This is good stuff, but it doesn't feel like Phillips gets very far into her material. She has a good sense for the way these people live their lives, but falls short a little in the expression. It somehow feels like she is telling more than showing, even as the story is full of short paragraphs and intriguing stylistic eccentricities such as no quotation marks for dialogue. Maybe this is ultimately more on the order of pioneering work, opening up a rich vein that others would mine with more success. Mary Gaitskill comes to mind. I like this kind of material actually a lot—family estrangements. I just expect them to be a little more heartrending than I found this story. It is built out of powerful emotional material, which is strangely distanced and inert. It labors for a big ending with an auto accident involving a deer, but feels too thought through and abstracted. I didn't like anyone here that much. The father is bumbling and means well but he's also an old-fashioned bigot. Jancy is too skittish and confused to trust, but it takes a bit to figure that out, with the result I felt a little tricked. I've already forgotten any impression of the mother. The father is extreme about rejecting his ex-wife even as he is slipping into unattractive cheap and easy ways to live, which make him look like he doesn't really care much about living at all. The whole car thing is where the story felt most stale to me, and it is fundamental to multiple strains in it. I guess that means I have to call it flawed. But I like the direction it's going.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Shining (1980)

UK / USA, 146 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson
Photography: John Alcott
Music: Krzysztof Penderecki, Bela Bartok, Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
Editor: Ray Lovejoy
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, Danny Lloyd, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone

Here's a platitude. Horror is a matter of personal taste—whether you like it, first, and then what works and doesn't. I like horror, but The Shining has never worked for me particularly. It's too long, too slow, too dependent on performances that are mannered or desperate, with a story full of ridiculous holes. Among other things, it is at war with its source novel. The images that jolted me are only good once (blood inexplicably pouring out of an elevator shaft) or derivative (the twin girls, too reminiscent of Diane Arbus, though underlining director and cowriter Stanley Kubrick's origins as a photographer). I've never been impressed with Jack Nicholson's cackling looney tunes turn here, even less with Kubrick's mistreatment of Shelley Duvall to provoke the raw (and, yes, convincing) anxiety that she brings.

Yet that said, those kinds of problems and many others are hallmarks of Kubrick's career, and in spite of them I keep returning to his movies. So I have kept returning to The Shining, hoping something I could hold on to would shake loose. I got an important clue from the strange and often annoying 2012 documentary, Room 237, which features interviews with people obsessed with The Shining and what they think it's "really"  and "obviously" about: the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust, an apologia by Kubrick for his part in the moon landing hoax, so on so forth. Out of this mess came my elusive moment of clarity, such as it was.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

"The Nightingales Sing" (1946)

Story by Elizabeth Parsons not available online.

I've spent a fair amount of time on this short story project characterizing some of the pieces I've encountered as "not a story"—that is, more like memoir, journalism, excerpt from something larger, or experiment of some kind. This story, published originally in the New Yorker, strikes me as more or less exactly what I have in mind as a short story. It's nearly perfect. It recounts a specific event, a visit by a young woman, Joanna, with the older brother of a friend to an eccentric household. She doesn't know the people living in the house at all, and she doesn't know the older brother well either. Her friend is not there because she came down sick at the last minute. The brother, Phil, kindly volunteered to accompany Joanna to a horse event she wanted to attend. That's where he meets his friends Sandy and Chris, who extend the invitation for the visit. Sandy and Chris are involved with one another, but Sandy is also married to another woman, with whom he also shares a house, shuttling between them. It's a small event, this visit, but seen through Joanna's eyes it's like encountering the world of adults for the first time all over again. There's no need to ask what the writer, Elizabeth Parsons, is trying to do. It's evident with every reaction from Joanna. This is what it's like to grow up. Suddenly you find yourself in a situation that changes you forever. The worlds of adults, responsibilities, and pleasures are revealed as infinitely complex, impossible to reduce to black and white platitudes. And more—discoveries like these, illuminating moments like this, may be the best life has to offer. Even after the brief evening visit is concluded and Joanna is home again, she realizes she will never be the same. Something has changed permanently and there is awe and mystery in the understanding. All that is compressed into this remarkable story of 16 pages or so, which stays close to Joanna's point of view but more often just dispassionately reports the events. From the way I'm talking about it I think it's fair to call it an epiphany story. Certainly something like that happens to Joanna. But what is the nature of her epiphany? That's not easily reduced to some didactic point, which is what makes this a great story. Joanna's experience vividly reminded me of some of my own early adventures in my late teens and early 20s, encountering unexpected revelations in my interactions with adults and strangers. There is a point where they shift from people who control you, abstracted authority figures, to flawed human beings a lot like you—peers. That's about as simple as I can make what I think Joanna finds in this wonderful story, and it's way too simplified for everything packed into it. This is one of the best stories in all these anthologies, even though, mysteriously, very little is known about the author.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Monday, October 23, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

There's enough to like about the unusual Twin Peaks redux to keep most fans going, probably, through the 18 one-hour episodes of David Lynch's intuitive crackpottery and never-ending freak show of the human unconscious. But there could also well be enough of those Lost Highway and Inland Empire dead ends to chase them away too. I wouldn't want to bet how many are actually making it all the way through The Return without bailing. For those who bailed, yeah, it only gets more inexplicable, but you missed Sheryl Lee. I know—at a certain point the mystery is why you care anymore about the mystery (inside the enigma wrapped in the riddle coiled around the conundrum all lathered up in ambiguous confusion). A certain exhaustion with mystery might be the very point and wouldn't that be fine.

I went all the way anyway and thought it was worth it. Not least because, with some 17-odd hours to spend, director David Lynch and his Twin Peaks writing partner Mark Frost found all kinds of surprising ways to be generous. Every cast member who made it back gets at least one genuinely nice scene, with the possible exception of Lucy Brennan, who is only annoying, and that's not Kimmy Robertson's fault. Even Lucy's now-husband Andy (Harry Goaz with a Jack Nance hairstyle) has one or two amazing scenes. (Did they marry on the show? I can't remember.) Lynch and Frost have sly fun with the legal cannabis now available in Twin Peaks, of course. Cherry pie and coffee make significant appearances, as they should. Laura Dern and Naomi Watts do their things, and are amazing as usual. And some of the most stunning establishing shots of cityscapes I have ever seen are casually tossed in there too—no kidding. Las Vegas and New York especially.

It's Kyle MacLachlan who makes the whole thing work, as much as it does, more than ever. Or it's easier to see how Dale Cooper is the one holding it together, from even the earliest scenes of the original TV series ("Sheriff, what kind of fantastic trees have you got growing around here?"). He gets the starring credit here and deserves it. He tears apart and puts back together the Dale Cooper role in a few different (albeit mystical) ways. David Lynch gets relatively more screen time than he's ever given himself, even in Fire Walk With Me, which I think is significant of the level of his involvement. He also directs every episode. For better or worse (you be the judge), there's also ample time to elaborate a woozy metaphysics based on overdetermined Native American arcana, nighttime dream signals, and midcentury fashions. The story at those points often feels too much like an episode of The X-Files, which in its own way perhaps owed its existence in the first place to the Twin Peaks original. The original series aired on CBS, by the way—somehow I remembered it as ABC. In the end, now, as I ponder the mass of clues set before me, I tentatively settle on things like extra-dimensionality to explain it. Or, a familiar fallback, no explanation at all, the implication being that no explanations are possible ever, for anything.

I don't want to explain it anyway. If its fantastical details are maybe too literal for my taste (I still haven't brought myself to see what the internet has to say about it), at the same time, as so often, they are also generally way too obscure. But it's better than Inland Empire. Chronologically, in an exercise I'm not yet prepared to execute, but can foresee doing one day, the whole thing starts with the 1992 movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, then proceeds to both seasons of the original series, and then finally to this recent Showtime production. Don't wait another 25 years!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

King Dork (2006)

This came to me as a recommendation in YA lit, out of the context of some thoughts I had on the animated picture Spirited Away. Frank Portman—who as Dr. Frank is captain of Bay Area punk-rock band the Mr. T Experience—is one of those enviable writers who can make his prose sing. That's helpful when, among other things, you are gunning for J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. This novel is more than just that, however: "It's actually kind of a complicated story," writes the first-person narrator, Tom Henderson, "involving at least half a dozen mysteries, plus dead people, naked people, fake people, teen sex, weird sex, drugs, ESP, Satanism, books, blood, Bubblegum, guitars, monks, faith, love, witchcraft, the Bible, girls, a war, a secret code, a head injury, the Crusades, some crimes, misrepresentation of skills, a mystery woman, a devil-hand, a blow job, and rock and roll." Yet therein lies the rub, more or less. It reminded me a little of the TV show Lost. In the beginning it is bristling with exploding ideas, but in the end it is gyrating like mad to make the pieces fit. I got lost myself at some point in King Dork, but I have a hunch all the pieces do fit pretty well down at their details. It's more the big picture I was concerned with. Mistaken identity and/or not recognizing someone you already know (cf., Lois Lane and Clark Kent / Superman) makes one key plot point hard to believe. Tom's family story and his mother are murky but whatever the realities it sounds at least formative and traumatic, which is not represented very urgently here, or at all. Maybe that's beside the point. If your target demographic is the disaffected tween to teen boy, and you are thinking in those terms, then there may be no good reason to get touchy-feely and lose them. As a baby boomer, I was entertained to find myself on the wrong side of this novel's generation gap. Tom deplores us all as hypocritical blowhards who can't let go of Vietnam, civil rights, the Beatles, and especially The Catcher in the Rye, which he excoriates. It's not hard to recognize the caricature and its realities. As it happens, I reread the Salinger recently, experiencing again (not that I reread it that often) how dated it has come to feel with its prep schools and New York Upper East Side lifestyle. Portman's update on the state of the nerd circa the turn of the millennium is bracingly candid. Tom's friendship with his best friend Sam Hellerman is at once shallow and deep, tenuous and committed, as only the relationships forged at that time of life are. King Dork may cheat a little on the character development, but the surface presentation is often dazzling.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Tokyo Rose (1989)

More tall tales from the slush pile: Van Dyke Parks's fifth solo album came home with me in a stack of other undesirables from the office of an alternative newsweekly nearly 30 years ago. It has ended up sticking with me through the years in spite of the winsome highly orchestrated saccharine surface, which often makes it sound closer to a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. To be clear, I don't consider sounding like a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta to be a good thing—I've had lifelong problems with Nilsson for similar reasons (Harpers Bizarre too, but no one seems to care about them anymore). But I do like Tokyo Rose. For one thing, if it makes like Gilbert & Sullivan it also shrugs off nostalgia explicitly at many surprising points and goes for the sharply political instead, as in "Trade War," which namechecks Ronald Reagan as it addresses the absurdities in the '80s between Japan and the US: "As is mentioned in the Bible / Nations tend to what is tribal / Across the ocean white with foam / Spend your dollars here at home." In fact, Tokyo Rose, from title to final track, works the cross-cultural currents of Japan and the US at deepest levels, which is signaled in the album opener, the only song here not written by Parks, the patriotic chestnut "America" fitted out with Japanese musical strategies. (Parks leaves Madame Butterfly alone, whose earth had been so wonderfully scorched by Malcolm McLaren just a few years earlier.) Tokyo Rose closes on one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard about baseball, "One Home Run," which by contrast is practically nothing but nostalgia, even as it lands on one more unique connecting point between the nations. It bears suggestive remnants of "Casey at the Bat," Joe DiMaggio, Sadaharu Oh, and all the aesthetic satisfactions of the geometrically displayed game, including the crack of the bat. But what ultimately sells me on this set is the usual expedient of hooks: "Yankee Go Home" and "Cowboy," for example, swell to irresistible singalong moments as their titles emerge, and "White Chrysanthemum" is positively inspired with its lonely cornet. I came to know Tokyo Rose first by 20-minute album sides, but now even that seems a little concentrated and I enjoy it more sprinkled into mixes with other artists. Even then, the peculiar '60s commercial sound may take getting used to. What else can I say? Nobody else wanted it so I gave it a home.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Love & Mercy (2014)

USA, 121 minutes
Director: Bill Pohlad
Writers: Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner, Brian Wilson
Photography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Beach Boys, Atticus Ross
Editor: Dino Jonsater
Cast: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks, Kenny Wormald, Jake Abel, Erin Darke, Joanna Going, Brett Davern, Max Schneider, Hal Blaine

Though director Bill Pohlad owns many impressive credits as a producer (Brokeback Mountain, The Tree of Life, and 12 Years a Slave, just to start), Love & Mercy is only his second film as a director and his first in nearly 25 years. This shows in both good and bad ways: he's bold or naive enough to try the dual casting—Paul Dano and John Cusack, respectively, play Brian Wilson as a young man and as a middle-aged man—but in many ways the picture proceeds with easy TV rhythms and obvious conflicts that are often reminiscent of Lifetime movies. I enjoy Lifetime movies, but a little can go a long way and it's hard to miss how predictably they move and develop.

What sets Love & Mercy off as something more special, transcending the TV movie feel and the inherent problems of a biopic, are the studio scenes where Brian Wilson is shown inventing in real time some of the greatest pop music ever made. The best of these scenes, which are all too brief, are even better than similar scenes in Grace of My Heart (another movie about Brian Wilson but in a more fanciful context). The mid-'60s were an impossibly exciting time in pop music, and Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are not the only artists around which a movie like this could be built. Similar movies could—and should—be made about similar studio-bound adventures by the Beatles, Phil Spector, Berry Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield, Frank Zappa, Shadow Morton, and many others. For now, Love & Mercy might be the best we have, for all its weaknesses and shortcomings.