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.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

"The Used-Boy Raisers" (1959)

Story by Grace Paley not available online.

This is actually the first in a series of stories by Grace Paley about Faith Darwin, who is the first-person narrator. It's an unfortunate name in many ways, but that can't be helped now. The story is a loose meditation on the trajectory of her life. It feels like feminism without the vocabulary. She is making breakfast for her two husbands. She calls her ex-husband, who is visiting, Livid, and her present husband she calls Pallid. She has two sons by Livid, whom Pallid is now raising with her. Generally her husbands at the breakfast table are sniveling about things in a bantering way, and generally she is contemptuous of them. It goes beyond her names for them. It's hard to call this a story because nothing really happens—or everything has already happened, though perhaps things may happen again in the future. It's hard to say. You can't help but think of things like, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." It's 1959 so it's early for feminism—or late, really, but you know what I mean. Yet that's the vibe. It's a short story, under 10 printed pages, but that's more than enough time with Livid and Pallid. Both have their attractive qualities, sometimes different from one another, but many more unattractive ones. The main interest for me, I think—because mostly the story annoyed me—is its incoherent articulation of what's to come. Paley seems to know change is coming, as did Sam Cooke a few years later. The situation she shows is so obviously ripe for it. Nobody is getting what they want from these relationships, evidently, and yet none of them has any idea what to do about it. Partly it's the old joke about the guy who thinks he's a chicken but his loved ones won't confront him because they need the eggs. As it happens, the whole story, with an opening line to bring it home, is about two men who are peevish about the way a woman prepared their eggs. It's a quirky read, with a spasmodic and elliptical way of moving the action and fleshing out the background. And there are apparently more stories about Faith Darwin too, with or without her husbands and children. As a stand-alone, however, I don't think this adds up to much.

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984)

After going big with The Executioner's Song and then indulging himself with Ancient Evenings, Norman Mailer trimmed back the metric word tonnage for this genre exercise, which at least is fun to read. It's basically hardboiled detective fiction. In this case the person doing the detecting is an amateur, Tim Madden, who is a marijuana grower and bartender. Naturally he is the prime suspect in a murder too. He is also a drunk and libertine and in general a lot like Mailer's ideal of manly. He is heartsick for a woman who has just left him and he is drinking hard. When Madden comes out of his latest blackout he finds blood all over the front seat of his car and the head of a blonde woman—only the head, no body in sight. So it goes. Crank up the lurid action and mysterious motives like a hurdy-gurdy coming to life. The setting is Provincetown in Cape Cod and there are lots of rich folks, who all seem to be terrified of being seduced by gay homosexuals. It quickly turns out to be the familiar anxiety panic states we know from previous Mailer fiction, perhaps most notably the previous book, Ancient Evenings. But this one also reminds me of an earlier novel, An American Dream, another febrile hallucination with all the Mailer trademarks. Tough Guys Don't Dance was a quickie to meet a contract, but it's clearly Mailer. Somehow so much keeps coming back to anal sex. One character here, an "Acting Chief of Police" with deep military background, is more or less officially put in charge of the homosexual panic. His fear and loathing is trembling on a hair trigger, and we all know what that means. Wait a minute—I'm not sure I do. In 1984, this kind of stuff still might have had some power to shock, and I note for the most part, without giving anything away, that the homophobes are generally on the losing side of things. Still, it's so strange that Mailer keeps coming back to this specter. It's like the gross-out effects in Frank Zappa's music—apparently baked in, and for reasons I'd rather not think about. As private eye stories go, think Ross Macdonald and the infinite complications of fracturing families. At that it's not too bad when Mailer gets out of his own way.

In 1987, a film version written and directed by Mailer came out. I remember the book but not the movie, at all, yet there it is, all legit-looking with Francis Coppola's name on it and Ryan O'Neal and Isabella Rossellini starring and music by Angelo Badalamenti. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum even includes it in his list of 1,000 favorite movies. But I had a hard time seeing past the painfully dated '80s production style. It is technically Mailer's fourth feature, but his filmmaking hand is tentative and distracted by effect, rudimentary at best using visual strategies to tell a story. I don't know his other movies. This one is professionally done, but the doomy literary pretensions are closer to Woody Allen phoning it in on a bad day than anything as raw and vital as, say, a John Cassavetes picture, which I would expect more to be Mailer's aim. Stick with the book if anything.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

L'année dernière à Marienbad, France / Italy, 94 minutes
Director: Alain Resnais
Writer: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Photography: Sacha Vierney
Music: Francis Seyrig
Editors: Jasmine Chasney, Henri Colpi
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff

It's tempting to fix the blame for the admittedly art-damaged Last Year at Marienbad on Michelangelo Antonioni and L'Avventura, which was released to wide acclaim (and derision too) the year before and which the following year, 1962, would be declared in a Sight & Sound poll of critics to be the second-greatest film of all time ever made. (Cooler heads have since prevailed somewhat and the 2012 version of the poll has L'Avventura at #21.) Both pictures are similarly aimless and pointless, er, I mean, ambiguous and ethereal, but the fact is, for all its artifice, I get a kick out of Last Year at Marienbad, and have so far remained mostly resistant to L'Avventura.

I use the word "artifice"—I'll even extend that to L'Avventura (though it is actually much more naturalistic)—and not the word "pretension," which is the one many may prefer. To be sure, I see the problem. Last Year at Marienbad is full of artfully posed mannequins wearing tuxedos and gowns, floating wanly about a mysterious French chateau with surrealistic geometric gardens, a wheezing cheesy organ providing soundtrack, and with no obvious point or even discernible plot beyond the cover story of a resort vacation: "The servants were mute," we learn from the randomly murmuring and often redundant voiceover narration, which is not always that informative (unreliable narrator, thy name is Last Year at Marienbad). "The games were silent, of course. It was a place for relaxation. No business was carried out, no plots were hatched. No one even discussed any topic that might cause excitement. There were signs everywhere: 'Silence' ... 'Silence.'"

Frankly, that sounds like a nice vacation to me, but for others, particularly of a fashionable European early-1960s Heroic Era of the Art Film bent, I'm sure it signifies a certain existential hell.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Cody's Story" (1987)

Story by Robert Olmstead not available online.

An obvious source for Robert Olmstead's story of two loggers eking out a living in a long-term partnership in 20th-century American wilderness is Jack London. Most American story writers with nature themes inevitably hark to him, at least since London's time. And this story is set well after London's time. G.R. and Cody not only make use of a horse (Buck, a pretty good character in his own right), but also "a 100-horsepower fully articulated John Deere skidder equipped with grapple, winch, and arch." Whatever that is—I only know it isn't 19th-century. G.R. and Cody know the wilderness and the lumber market well enough to get by. They have been partners for years, if not decades. Now G.R. is starting to slip a little in the area of mental function. He forgets conversations and brings the same things up over and over. He's responsible for the horse, who is slipping into old age and will likely need to be dealt with soon. At the time of the action of the story, such as it is—it's more brooding backstory overall—it's winter, which means special precautions for the frigid conditions at night. They live in a horse trailer with the horse, who is also a significant source of heat. There's no mention of what it smells like. G.R. questions the precautions several times, which both annoys and alarms Cody. After the two have spent the morning cleaning and maintaining their chainsaws, Cody goes outside to hunt deer in the afternoon. He falls asleep and has a long nap. It's almost nightfall when he wakes. He slips on an icy surface and has a strange, dreamlike accident, from which he is fortunate to suffer no harm. Back at the horse trailer, G.R. again wants to know why they are taking the precautions. Cody doesn't mention the accident. In the night they wake and it is so cold they decide to huddle, sleeping next to one another for the warmth, something they do when needed and are comfortable with. It's a tender and lonesome moment when G.R. raises questions once again that he has asked multiple times. Cody's story, the title, seems to be a realization that all things pass and fall away. Everything is temporary, including their business, Buck the horse, and his long-time partner, sharing body heat with him to make it through a bad night.

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

Monday, October 09, 2017

Mother! (2017)

Truly, I have much sympathy for the people who already hate this one, who walked out, demanded their money back, picked fights with policemen, whatever it took to shake it off, and have spent their time since denigrating it in no uncertain terms in comments threads everywhere. Mother! is pretty silly stuff, and that's evidently by design—a loud existential allegorical chamber drama handclap tricked out like horror but behaving more like a dweeby bookworm accidentally dosed with hallucinogens. Come to think of it, that might be verging on SOP for director and writer Darren Aronofsky by this point. He's done some great stuff before, notably Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, but he often misses. For example, no one in Mother! has names beyond what is given in the credits: Mother, Him, Man, Woman, Younger Brother, etc. What does that tell you? (It gets worse too: Cupbearer, Damsel, Consoler, Bumbler, Philanderer, many more.) The movie's inflection points are equal parts Amityville Horror, Day of the Locust, and Fraud, er, I mean, Freud-as-shallowly-construed (Freud and mothers, you know), with a dash of Rosemary's Baby. Aronofsky has given us some silly stuff before (Pi, possibly The Fountain, parts of Noah) but this one really takes the cake. Jennifer Lawrence is a young wife living in remote isolation with a poet, Him (Javier Bardem), who is suffering from writer's block. She spends her time working on restoring the mansion. Then people start showing up, and Him invites them to stay, one and all: Man (Ed Harris), Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Herald (Kristen Wiig), many others, dozens or hundreds. This is where it reminded me of The Day of the Locust, toward the end. At many points, Mother! is above average in showing the plight of an introvert unexpectedly confronted with socially aggressive people and ambiguous situations. Mother! is often like a nightmare. But it's often like many other things too: the creative process, the Bible, climate change, the Syrian crisis, the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, certain Beatles songs played backward, and of course celebrity cannibalism. Very many very big and important things. Yet when the connecting concept is finally revealed in full with the closing scenes, it's so ridiculous, this thing about a crystal, I felt my face burning with embarrassment for everyone involved, including myself for seeing it. Is Aronofsky being sarcastic about such neat and tidy resolutions overlaid with veneers of intellectual engagement (one feels philosophers or other great thinkers lurking in the wings)—or is it just stupid? Those are the kinds of unpleasant questions Mother! left me with.

Of course, I went into it as blind as I could, my usual practice, and later found out Aronofsky himself has claimed his intent was to make an explicit (if compressed) allegory of the Bible, fore and aft, meaning Old Testament and New Testament. In many ways that is picking up where Noah, his last picture, left off. I confess that Aronofsky's pictures sometimes don't fully clarify for me the first time. I don't like it and then on second viewing I do—a lot. I meant to take that second look at Mother! and get back to you. I still do. But let my reluctance give you some idea about the experience of seeing this movie. I'm in no hurry. It dripped with arch theatrical pretension and I really worry that won't change.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Sanctuary (1931)

The first and only other time I read this novel was in the '70s, so I was surprised that I noticed the difference between it and this "Corrected Text" version, which came along in 1981. Mostly what I noticed was the absence of William Faulkner's "misleading" introduction, written a year after the original publication, which he then changed his mind about and did not want included in later printings. But there it was in 1975 or so, a heaving disavowal of Sanctuary as a potboiler, "the most horrific tale I could imagine," written for the money and ultimately failing even at that. I suspect at bottom it's an issue of embarrassment—Sanctuary is a profile of a mindset of which Faulkner evidently was not entirely in control at the time of writing. The basic story is about a white college girl of 18 in Oxford, Mississippi—Temple Drake—and her coercion into prostitution. It's a solid foundation, even classic Zola style naturalism, but from that point on we are hard into Faulkner-land, and he's straining remember. The man who turns out Temple is known as Popeye. He is impotent and sickly, though lethal and dangerous. Faulkner thinks Popeye thinks he can do the job with a corncob. This is sufficiently lurid, yes, but I think we're losing track of believability, never mind taste. There is also a scene no doubt beyond lurid for its times, but far more graphic displays of it can be found by the hundreds now in the "cuckold" section of your favorite porn site. In a word: eww. But one word won't do: eww, eww, eww. Thus my fair warning to you, gentle reader, and too late now for spoiler warnings. I'm a little embarrassed myself by this overheated funk, but that's not really my main complaint. I've seen worse. At the same time, with its insistence on the poetic concrete—to the point I'm not always certain what is going on except on a base experiential level—he seems to want to have it two ways, writing a potboiler and maintaining his literary dignity. He is often examining light and shadow closely, and people and scenes slip easily into affects of oil paintings. He has a particular fascination with the texture of eyes, describing them as soft black rubber, knobby, and utterly black. In the Faulkner universe, this novel is slightly to the side. We run into a couple of the Snopes brothers, who I tend to enjoy though obviously they are a stereotype of poor white trash. I know the name Horace Benbow too—he is the attorney and knock-kneed moral compass here and has appeared elsewhere in Faulkner's work. Sanctuary is an interesting curiosity but I don't think it ranks with the best of his work. For its raw action it's not much fun to read either, though the language as always has its points.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Tusk (1979)

I had never fathomed the emptiness of this star vehicle until recent weeks. That's partly because I never owned a copy until it was years old and then never played it often. And partly because, when I decided to look into it, I went all the way with the Tusk box on Napster. All this time I've been inclined to defend Tusk based mostly on favoring two of its three singles (one very much) and also feeling some need to argue for the Buckingham-Nicks model against the ravening Peter Green hordes. Stevie Nicks made a natural companion with Christine McVie, who is as close to an original member as you can find after Green, drummer Mick Fleetwood, and Christine's brother ex-husband, John, the bass player. I'm not saying Stevie and Christine are natural companions because they are both women, but because in their outlook and mood they are equally sisters of the moon (as documented by name here in fact). If there are any further questions, Stevie Nicks is a Gemini and Christine McVie is a Cancer. They have more in common with Danny Kirwan or Bob Welch than Lindsey Buckingham, who is the real wild card here, a pop gremlin more out of the school of the Beatles, with an affinity for hooks, pop song constructions, and studio wonkery. It was natural in the late '70s that he would be drawn to New Wave. If Buckingham represented a wash of Beatles influence on the old Fleetwood Mac, New Wave was similarly a wash of Beatles influence on punk-rock. Tusk, as noted everywhere, was Fleetwood Mac's lavishly budgeted laboratory to do with as they wished, a job-well-done from the label for being so helpful in selling a kajillion records (Rumours is still in the top 10 of all-time album sellers).

I love the title song, "Tusk," which went to #8 late in 1979, and always have. It's not just the marching band, the whole thing is buggy but also tight as a drum. In fact, "Tusk" starts with, builds on, and never gets far from a basic drum pattern, on which the layers are built vertically, sliding in and out in overlays: nonsense lyrics, more percussion, the gorgeous Fleetwood Mac harmonies, and of course that marching band (the genuine USC thing). The song spins, it floats in the air, it sits down, it dances in place. It's irresistible, Buckingham's primal essay at New Wave. But inspection of the Tusk box has also convinced me that that single version is the only good one that exists (among a handful of other versions scattered over the five CDs). "Sara," the second single, was also top 10, and I liked it too, although I don't like it very much anymore—the mood of Stevie Nicks at her best is present, but slowed to a soporific crawl. You want to get this song a cup of coffee because it sounds like it's about to pass out. I'll stick with "Rhiannon," "Dreams," and even "Gypsy." The third hit from Tusk was a Christine McVie song, "Think About Me," which made it to #20 early in 1980. I'm not a fan. And the rest of the album, some 17 more tracks, moves through Buckingham New Wave experiments ("The Ledge," "Not That Funny," "I Know I'm Not Wrong") and lots of muzzy-headed buffaloing around the place from Stevie and Christine, which in spite of themselves sometimes wander into decent places, but only occasionally, such as a certain keening apotheosis in "Sisters of the Moon." For the most part Tusk is way too much work with way too little reward. Proceed to Mirage.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

"Aunt Granny Lith" (1990)

Story by Chris Offutt not available online.

Chris Offutt is a native son of Kentucky, which is a good thing because events here traffic dangerously with white trash caricatures. Casey is a moonshiner and maybe a drunk too. Beth is his third wife—his first two died of freak accidents on their wedding days. Casey is not under suspicion for anything. It's not that kind of story. It is, in fact, more the kind of story tempted to poetic flights like portentous wedding days. The deaths are symbolic of Casey's star-crossed fate and/or Beth's ability to back it off with brute strength and courage. Offutt has written that this story "is a hybrid of the Book of Ruth, an eastern European folk story, and the Eleusinian Mysteries from ancient Greece." I guess I'm happy to know it. Offutt also mentions that "two of the female names—Lil and Lith—form the name of Adam's first wife," which I found interesting because I didn't know Adam had a first wife. I read the story first without benefit of any of this, and was entertained by the febrile vibe. It opens, for example, with an energetic brawl between two women before breaking off into the extended flashback that provides most of the action. Knowing the literary sources makes me think I might get more out of it another time, but didn't inspire an immediate revisit. It's rich with detail and swift-moving events, and everything seems to add up. The stuff about Ruth and Adam only packs in more meaning. But hold on a second. Setting aside the thing about Adam having a first wife, how in the world are we supposed to take this stuff about Casey's first two wives? It's so ridiculous as to call attention to itself. Is it a comical transport? Some kind of literalism beyond my ken? As a teen and young adult I snorted at the very idea of symbolism in literature as a lot of preening mental masturbation. I'm more willing to accommodate it now (and good old ham-handed allegory too!) though I remain a little dubious. They still seem a little too easy. Of course, nothing is simple about this story, so there's that. And it's perfectly engaging on the surface, with lots of dialogue, action, and short paragraphs. Maybe I resent that it's making me work so hard after it promised so much fun. More likely, I really don't have much sense of what just happened when I read this story. At a time like this, I miss belonging to a reading group.

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

Sunday, October 01, 2017

A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

There aren't many surprises in this Anne Tyler novel, but somehow I connected with it more than other recent novels by her. It's familiar stuff: the setting in Baltimore, the focus on a fractured and fractious family, and Tyler's usual eye and ear for the telling detail of human relationships, one of her great strengths. A Spool of Blue Thread covers four generations of the Whitshank family. The star is Abby, the Tyler woman who holds together a family by the strength of her love and will. And there's plenty of quirk to go around as usual—her four children and their children are still more typical Tyler creations: a ne'er-do-well son, a child adopted under strange circumstances, two types of sisters. Most of the novel follows events in the here and now as Abby and her husband Red enter their 70s with worrisome failings. In the last third, Tyler pushes the action back in time to the late '50s, when Abby and Red began their relationship, and then even further back, to the original family scions, Junior and Linnie Mae, when the family homestead was originally built in the 1930s. The story of their lives and courtship is actually blunt and a little shocking. Linnie Mae seduced Junior (as the narrative goes) when she was 13 and Junior was 26. The story has its comical elements yet Tyler writing in 2015 knows we can't take a 13-year-old girl's sexual agency at face value. You can say it's the times and place—both Junior and Linnie Mae are also Southerners—but we know better, which undergirds their story with tension and anxiety, and thus the story of the whole family. I said Abby was the star, but her black sheep elder son Denny is another main player here, and another typical Tyler figure, a bit like Barnaby Gaitlin from A Patchwork Planet and a little like a Jonathan Franzen character. I see myself in them too. Like Denny, I'm a little amazed by people who stay in one place and/or in regular touch across a lifetime. I'm amazed at some of the things these people accomplish—annual weeklong jaunts to "the beach," for example. Really, every year? How do you do that? Denny is the guy, all tripped up in his own problems, who can only make it every five or six years, which all the others find ridiculous. I enjoyed this one a lot. It's full of stuff like that, like all the best Tyler.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Innocence" (1948)

Story by Sean O'Faolain not available online.

Sean O'Faolain is another writer in these anthologies that I'm basically getting my introduction to now. I barely even know the name, but Wikipedia informs he was Irish (duh), primarily a short story writer, and fairly prolific. A man of letters—he also wrote criticism, biography, novels, and more. The language in this story is beautiful and seductive, but the story—which is very short, barely five printed pages—is kind of a labored joke about a boy's misunderstanding of the word "adultery." It's also saturated in Catholic culture. The misunderstanding occurs in a confessional. The scene is actually pretty funny. The priest is old and doddering. At first he mistakes his confessor for a girl, which suggests the first-person narrator's youth at the time of the incident—or his underdevelopment, because his voice might have still been high. The narrator is recounting the story as an adult many years later, a full-grown man with a son of his own, looking back through the haze of memory, quite evidently casting a glow on it. It's also a little too cute about withholding the term in question ("adultery"), which instantly clarifies all the mystifying confusion. But it wouldn't have been as funny that way. Oops, I gave it away. Well, it's an odd duck at any rate, much closer to memoir. I have to wonder if the "innocence" of the title is perhaps not a little the narrator's own still. The revelation appears to be that the Catholic church is fallible despite its claims. What he's most worried about now is what it will do to his son's psyche when he comes to the realization in his turn. It's something like the way we think about breaking it to kids that Santa Claus is all a hoax. So maybe it's me, after all, and not the narrator, who is the real innocent around here. Still, the whole little thing strikes me as a bit of a stunt. It's also way too Catholic for my taste. But my vague sense of O'Faolain's reputation (set permanently as Irish, likely in the long shadow of James Joyce), and especially the wonderful ease and expressiveness of the language here, make me think he might be worth looking into further one of these days.

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

Monday, September 25, 2017

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Ingrid Goes West draws from the well of the obsessed sociopathic stalker thriller, most notably Single White Female, so obviously in fact that that movie is name-checked along the way. Director Matt Spicer and cowriter David Branson Smith attack the problem creatively, with dashes of '80s urban nightmares like After Hours and Desperately Seeking Susan even as it takes on easy targets like the beautiful shallowness of Los Angeles culture and especially the foibles of social media. In fact, Ingrid Goes West seems to be hanging much of its marketing cap more or less on its critique of now-comic now-horrific empty social media life. But the usual practical problems with internet and computer movies rear up quickly. Computer interfacing still doesn't lend itself well to movie visuals. In this case, the relentlessness of social media feeds is represented by scenes of glazed browsing, sequential posts, and murmuring voiceovers for comment threads that unite and diverge. I have a policy to disregard any pop songs which literally use the words "hashtag" or "emoji." Good thing for this movie it's not a pop song. The point is we quickly get the point. Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza, doing fine) is lonely, alienated, wrong in the head, and finds her only outlet online: connecting is connection and connection is everything. Her mother has died recently, leaving her an inheritance somewhere shy of six figures. She has had problems stalking people in the past. Now she has some more, setting her sights on Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a freelance photographer and part-time poseur (or is that freelance poseur and part-time photographer?), who does under-the-table product placement on Instagram. Ingrid operates for most of the movie in a gray area where it's not clear whether she's monster or hapless victim of society somehow, but by any code she's plainly not behaving herself, desperately conning and manipulating her way into a friendship she expects will bring her this fulfillment she forever seeks. After about the first third, in which she is merely creepy, Ingrid relaxes into her new life. One of the sad points is how close she is to having the life she wants if she could just be genuine with the people falling in her orbit. For the most part they're a pretty good bunch, if a little soft-headed in obvious Los Angeles caricatured ways (screenwriting ambitions, physical fitness and health food crazes, etc.). The truth is Ingrid doesn't deserve them, not even Taylor, but we're kind of on Ingrid's side anyway. She actually lucks into a pretty good boyfriend, Dan (O'Shea Jackson Jr), though she can't seem to see him that way. For her, he's an ally in her con, and if he can just keep his mouth shut everything will be great. There are only so many places a story like this can go, and Ingrid Goes West, having little other choice, goes in one of them. The twists and turns are still often surprising, especially once Taylor's wastrel brother Nicky shows up (Billy Magnussen, stealing the show most of the rest of the way). Ingrid Goes West is tense and funny by turns, always interesting, and turns into a pretty good thriller. It's not as insightful on social media as it thinks (let alone mental illness), but it's probably more savvy about moving a plot forward than you might.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

"My Oedipus Complex" (1950)

Story by Frank O'Connor not available online.

On Wikipedia they are selling this story as "perhaps [Frank O'Connor's] most popular." Published originally in the New Yorker, it bears the unmistakable tang of that magazine's midcentury time—witty, urbane, and often actually funny. It's a reminiscence by a man named Larry of his father's homecoming after serving in World War I. Here's some of that New Yorker tang now: "The war was the most peaceful period of my life." I'm not sure what my snarking is about exactly—one of the best traditions of the New Yorker is some of the greatest writing and writers of its times. And I was entertained by this story. It was just I kept feeling it could have been written by Ring Lardner, J.D. Salinger, or James Thurber. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but a certain sameness to them was revealed here, with the dry distance and overweening wit. I don't otherwise know O'Connor at all, so perhaps I'm not being fair to him either. The story in practical terms is like an illustrative sketch of the Freudian term under consideration. The most peaceful time in Larry's life included rising early and finishing in bed with his mother, having drowsy conversations before breakfast. The reason his mother gives him for sleeping in separate beds and rooms at night is that it's healthier. Larry is thus understandably baffled by his father sleeping with his mother on his return, after a long absence during the war. Larry thinks it's selfish, and even worse, reckless, to sleep with her. He is endangering her. At one point in the story Larry announces to them both that he plans on marrying his mother when he grows up. He is even more confused when they react as if he's told a joke. This story doesn't just remind me generally of Ring Lardner, but even more specifically of a story by Lardner in this same collection edited by Robert Penn Warren. "Liberty Hall" is also carefully, perhaps even intricately, structured, even if the structure turns out to be largely in the form of a joke. The punchline part of "My Oedipus Complex" involves the arrival of a new brother for Larry, Sonny, and the effect it has on the marital bed Larry has long since quitted. An Oedipus complex cuts all different ways, as this story elegantly illustrates, with Larry and his father closing ranks as allies. It's almost touching really, and funny too.

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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Red (2012)

Taylor Swift is a supremely poised figure of popular culture. We've seen that the least shred of temper or celebrity self-involvement on her part, as in her new single "Look What You Made Me Do," yields barrels of anguish and bickering from fans and celebrity journalists. My first, admittedly snap judgment of her—that is, loathing—was based on a few impressions in the late 2000s, when I couldn't turn away fast enough from her songs on the radio in the car, driving back and forth to work and for groceries and such. In fairness, I couldn't turn away fast enough from most of the songs on the radio. Just on the surface, in the five to 20 seconds it took me to recognize things, there was something putting me off almost reflexively.

It was Swift's smug 2009 #2 hit "You Belong With Me" that was the main culprit for me in terms of her songs, but "Our Song," "Fifteen," and others also accounted for many quick exits from the premises. At a certain point it became her voice itself that provided the cue, but she was hardly the only one. The voice of one of her boyfriends, John Mayer, was often responsible for my changing the station too, along with many others. Indeed, at the time I was certain there was an unusually higher percentage of dreck than usual on pop music radio. Yes, certainly part of that was my own aging, as I was entering my 50s. But it was also exhaustion with a chapter of popular culture thoroughly saturated by then with the rapacious lottery values of the Bush/Cheney era. Hip hop generally remained a bright light, with steadily growing influence, but beyond that was beyond sad. Country music with its patriotic airs and politically correct requirements (respecting all public displays of the Confederate flag) was unlistenable even by 2003. That includes the Dixie Chicks. By 2007, certain strains of pop music were ailing badly as well—the Bush/Cheney values were now filtered through the athletic faux operatics of American Idol, the single worst thing I've seen happen to pop music.

Taylor Swift, who started in country music with a wheedling self-absorbed whimper, neatly straddled a lot of this—as a country singer she already sounded like a pop star, and as a pop singer she sounded country—and she embodied everything that was wrong. These judgments seemed to me verifiable and continually verified from the brief and random car surveys I conducted. I was sure I was living through one of the worst times ever for pop music on the radio. I still consider it a very bad period, but as it hasn't become much better in the years since I have to conclude that my judgments are now well out of step. Where I'm coming from.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Leonard Cohen: Live in London (2009)

USA, 157 minutes, documentary
Director: Edward Sanders

Concert films are a breed of documentary unto themselves and the fact is I just don't look at that many. Maybe I've seen enough live shows that I know a movie of one is always a completely different experience. Or maybe I've seen enough bad shows that I forget (again) the magic of the good ones, which concert films can sometimes capture (rationally you would already assume it's a good show if it's getting the film treatment). The concert movies I like—Stop Making Sense, say—are often structured and filmic and not very much like seeing a concert. If they're rambling like a concert can be—The Last Waltz, say (understanding I'm likely in a minority in my indifference to that movie)—they're often even duller than concerts can be. At least in the movies we're spared the tedium of teardowns and setups. But paradoxically teardowns and setups count among the most common elements of the concert experience. Which only underlines how something essential about the actual physical presence is always missing from movie versions.

In any event, Leonard Cohen: Live in London is not cinematic, at all—the director is no one particularly in the movie business, and while the credits emphasize Roscoe Beck's role as musical director there is not a cinematographer credit on IMDb.com. Repeat: No cinematographer credit. Instead, "camera" is folded in with "electrical department." This product is also, while I'm on the caveats, associated with a CD release. It had no theatrical release of its own. So technically it's not a movie, it's a video, which only makes sense on ridiculous marketing levels. I would love to see it on a big screen. What's most remarkable about this Leonard Cohen performance from the summer of 2008 in London is how generous and satisfying it is. Cohen is the logical place to put the credit.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1953)

Read story by Flannery O'Connor online.

Flannery O'Connor's story is a hard gut punch, certainly the first time. After that you go back to dissect and figure out how it was done. The central problem and conflict are right there in the first paragraph, a fact perhaps as improbable as it is amazing. Even more amazing is the smooth way O'Connor pulls it off. A family's grandmother is an out-of-touch barnacle on the hull. Their ship is sinking, though we don't know why. We only know the mother and father are in a big hurry to travel from Georgia to Florida, although they are pretending it's a family vacation. There are two kids and an infant, the stressed-out parents, and the grandmother, who all things considered would rather be traveling to East Tennessee. She is an exasperating character, a kind of Lucille Ball figure oblivious to the worries of others or the reality around her, and attempting to manipulate all things her way. At the same time she's not wholly an unsympathetic person. If I were in her position I'd want to know more about why they're doing the things they're doing too. She doesn't deserve the fate she inadvertently forces—though even in the worst moments of their ultimate predicament she still doesn't seem to grasp the gravity of the situation, which leaves one less sympathetic. As big-time bad guys go, "The Misfit" is a lulu, starting with the moniker (no relation to the Arthur Miller story, which came later). Once he's squatting down in front of the family holding court, it's his show in every way, and all you want to do is quote him: "I found out the crime don't matter," he says. "You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it." Or: "I call myself the Misfit because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment." Or (my favorite): "Lady, there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip." He's the kind of character people make whole books about, when O'Connor is probably the one who has it right: stick him in a short story and overflow it with bitter bilge until it leaves a taste in the mouth. Among other things, a scene of a man putting on a shirt could well be one of the saddest, most pitiful, and horrifying things you have ever seen.

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Broken Wings" (1900)

If it feels like we've been here before with Henry James, I think that's because we have: at the crucible of the choice between a life of love, warmth, and happiness, or a life of the solitude of creative work. It's a brooding story with long paragraphs. The heroes are Stuart Straith and Mrs. Harvey. She is an accomplished writer, and he is an accomplished painter. So it goes. They are meeting by random at a social occasion. They share a past—for 10 years they were close to marrying. But, well, the work—hang it all, the work. You really feel James put his heart into these situations, no doubt because as a lifelong bachelor he saw himself in them. People now tend to assume James was gay, or otherwise closeted, but as far as I know there is no Clyde Tolson companion figure shadowing him, let alone a formal life partner. James was at the work. I'm not making light of it. I respect his work ethic. This story is short enough to be a short story, but long enough to break into five sections with Roman numerals, with separate scenes in time and space. The social occasion, a party, is where these two reconnect, tentatively. It's a kind of dance they go through, seem resigned to, of advance and withdraw. They respect one another. They understand one another. In spite of which they must be apart, because—the work. In the third section they are seeing one another, bargaining within themselves as much as with each other. They confide their sideline means of income. Now we start to get the sense they may be accomplished as artists but stretching to make ends meet. Their sympathies for one another go deeper, as do ours for them. They are wonderfully tender and vulnerable with these disclosures. They have their struggles. Stuart's work doesn't seem to sell well, he has such a lot of it around his studio. But Mrs. Harvey pays him the compliment of a visit and abundant admiration for his work. In the fifth and last section, Mrs. Harvey lets Stuart visit her in her home, after some resistance. They are coming to recognize each other, perhaps imperfectly, even as they begin to realize they are alone in the world with their dreams. Who can't identify with that?

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 19 pages ("interlocutress")

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Night and the City (1950)

UK / USA, 96 minutes
Director: Jules Dassin
Writers: Jo Eisinger, Gerald Kersh, Austin Dempster, William E. Watts
Photography: Mutz Greenbaum
Music: Franz Waxman (USA), Benjamin Frankel (UK)
Editors: Nick DeMaggio, Sidney Stone
Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Francis L. Sullivan, Hugh Marlowe, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko

Midcentury was approximately the full ripening of American film noir, that mystifying quasi-genre label that was first applied (obviously) by the French, to Hollywood movies in which black dominates white in the primitive color schema and badness dominates goodness in the narrative. Many noirs are low-budget B-movies, typical for the time, relying on basics of darkened soundstages and often talky two-shot dialogue to keep costs down. The problem now is that this general term "film noir" can be made to fit movies from Citizen Kane to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe the charm is the maddening vaporous attempt to pin it down. Like pornography you know it when you see it. Night and the City, one of the great noirs or certainly one of my favorites, has many of the familiar markers: jazzy soundtrack, crazy-angled shots, black shapes dominating the frames, a preoccupation with lowlifes and crime, and perhaps the key ingredient, desperation as the air the characters breathe. It's classic noir in that the story is packed full of betrayals, treacheries nested inside treacheries. Yes, it's a woman, but Helen Nosseross (Googie Withers) is hardly the usual femme fatale. She ends up impaled on her own betrayals—but she's not the only or even the chief betrayer in all the great gobs of bad faith on trade here.

In other ways, Night and the City is unusual. It's set in London, which despite its famous gloom is a little too tallyho for noir, compared with the Southern California scenes of transplanted Midwesterners we're more used to. Director Jules Dassin, a Connecticut native who ended up in New York City, was a pioneer and prime mover of noir, with The Naked City and others already to his credit. But in 1950 he was blacklisted for belonging to the Communist Party in the 1930s. Night and the City was his last Hollywood film, and even at that he was pulled off after the shooting was finished. He had nothing to do with editing or postproduction. Because of requirements of the US and worldwide markets at the time, the result, weirdly, was more or less two separate movies, with separate soundtracks and numerous differences in editing. Full disclosure: I only know the US version.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"The Things They Carried" (1986)

Read story by Tim O'Brien online.

Tim O'Brien's story was evidently conceived as the first story in a cycle of stories going by the same name, The Things They Carried, published in 1990. Wikipedia calls it a novel, but this story reads more like a stand-alone than, for example, Dorothy Allison's "River of Names," which is also from the collection edited by Tobias Wolff. At the same time, O'Brien's story is sounding big themes, suitable for later enlargement. The art of this particular story is that it works pretty well either way—as a story, or as an overture to a novel. Literally the objects of the title are scrutinized. The small outfit of American soldiers on patrol duty in Vietnam is described as carrying rifles, radios, food, camping equipment, and other necessary (and unnecessary) items. They all carry peculiar keepsakes, letters from home and such. As a group, they "carried themselves with poise." And they carry internal burdens. The stand-alone narrative—which might well be developed further in a larger novel—is about a soldier killed by a sniper while the band is on patrol. It is a shocking incident for all, and a crisis for the leader, 24-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. They respond in ways we've been trained to expect by Vietnam War stories, in this case by burning down a village. It's good powerful stuff, delivered with a sure grim tone and a lot of insight into private and personal pains. If they sometimes feel like clichés now, that's not exactly O'Brien's faults. He was among the first to use them with Going After Cacciato in 1978, before they were clichés. O'Brien feels a little in the literary war lineage of Ernest Hemingway and Normal Mailer. Cacciato was ripe with literary conceit, saturated through with O'Brien's remarkable eye for the Vietnam War experience. We know these stories so well now it's easy to miss the precision of the execution. I have a strong hunch, for example—not knowing the full-length Things They Carried—that our Lieutenant Cross is a candidate for fragging. Certainly more than one of the characters we meet in this story, not just the one killed here, will come to a sad wartime end. I'm not averse to reading more. The story is fine. But I find myself orienting the same way I do with any genre literature. On certain obvious levels you're never going to be surprised.

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

Since approximately Saving Private Ryan, big-name directors taking turns at World War II shows has become a bit of a rite of passage (so make that since the 50th anniversary of D-Day). A partial list would include Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor), Roman Polanski (The Pianist), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), and Robert Zemeckis (Allied). Clint Eastwood made two in one year (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima) and even John Woo made one (Windtalkers). Still, it was surprising to me that director and writer Christopher Nolan had any interest in the subject, given the indie / superhero bent of his career. But apparently he has been nursing a screenplay for some 25 years. In many ways it shows. Dunkirk is full of a big bushel basket of ambitious everything—blood, sweat, tears, maybe one or two kitchen sinks—but it's missing one thing: narrative clarity. With all the Dark Knight business he retailed for years it might be easy to forget that Nolan is a British citizen. That's evident here, and he is obviously stirred by the British effort at Dunkirk. He pretty much assumes we care as much as he does, and that's where he's starting from. If you don't know much about Dunkirk the historical event and key battle of World War II—which I didn't, lazybones me, assuming the movie would fill me in—then you might find yourself somewhat at sea like all the imperiled people in the movie. It also doesn't help that Dunkirk is treated like one of those things so big it can only be told with the stories of multiple otherwise unconnected people. I never felt like I 100% grasped everything I was looking at—who these people were, what exactly was happening to them specifically, and what happened to my compassion. The battle scenes are tremendous, yes, particularly the aerial engagements, but tremendous battle scenes are not enough. The deaths can be horrible and there were touching displays of human kindness, but horrible deaths and touching human kindness are also not enough. The notable lack of clarity in Dunkirk, in fact, was unexpected partly because I thought one of the few worthwhile points about the otherwise incoherent mess of Interstellar was Nolan's ability to visually communicate experiences of relativity without getting that confusing. I was dubious about Dunkirk from the start, but when word of mouth got to me that it was Nolan's masterpiece I thought I had to take a look. As far as I'm concerned, The Dark Knight and then Memento are still the ones by him to beat. As World War II movies go, I think I even like Allied better, though it's not nearly as self-serious.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (1772)

Slave narratives seem to vary quite a bit by size. This one is relatively short, less than 40 printed pages, but some can run to hundreds of pages. They also date all the way back to the 18th century (or further?), and North America is only one part of the picture in the larger slave trade. James Albert (as he is usually called in this narrative, a first-person memoir dictated orally) finishes his days in England, the land he dreamed of all his life, or at least after his life changed radically with his kidnapping. A couple of points are hard to miss. First, the condescension of even the kindest white people and the acceptance of blacks only in the lowest social positions. We know now that these are matters of social psychology, self-reinforcing belief systems and so forth, but still it's striking how deeply accepted it is. The good old days! Make America great again! And then, second, all the risk African Americans lived with, day to day. James Albert is carried away from his home in Africa at about the age of 15, and frequently robbed and swindled by shady unscrupulous people from that point on. But he meets many good people as well. This narrative reads as if it were intended chiefly, or at least partly, to carry the word of Jesus. James Albert claims he rejected the faith by which he was raised (in "the sun, moon and stars") even then, before he was kidnapped, choosing instead to believe in a single superior entity. Thus Christianity was a natural fit for him, goes the narrative, and really that's fine. It seems generous on his part—he knows the Bible and has obviously meditated on it and drawn strength from it. I am instinctively averse to the language of redemption through Jesus the Christ and only Jesus the Christ, even from such an unimpeachable source as this, and I had to fight that in myself a little while reading this. His time in North America was spent in the North, so no scenes of antebellum South, for which honestly I was grateful at this early point. Though this slave narrative is cluttered up too much with religion, it's a lucid and interesting story. James Albert is perfectly likable—sunny and optimistic in spite of his many setbacks. He is grateful for and remembers the good that people have done him, and he has been good to others too. It's hard not to like that. He's also sympathetic for the way he is taken advantage of and bounces back. The slave narratives and related pieces I've been reading are mostly in chronological order, so this is the earliest—but it also seems like a nice way to ease into this.

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

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Tell Mama (1968)

I'm open to the idea that Etta James may have done some bandwagon-jumping by traveling to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record her 1968 album, an album I have never been willing to get far from since formal introductions to it some 10 years ago. She had not had a hit in nearly five years, and by 1968 Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, and many others had been churning them out from down that way, with memorable songs, a signature sound with spine-tingling horn charts tight as drums, and a certain mysterious admixture of pain and joy we just call soul. Like many such singers, James always had the pipes to put material over. But she didn't write her own and was thus dependent on others for the good stuff. For this project, she got that first and foremost from the one-two punch of the first two tracks on the first side of the album, which were also the A-side ("Tell Mama") and B-side ("I'd Rather Go Blind") of the first single. It took a total of five credited songwriters to create those two amazing songs, and then some dozen more for the other 10 on the original album (a 2001 CD reissue worth snagging raised the total number of tracks to 22). I'm not sure how to read this—highly discriminating and choosy, on the one hand, or on the other unable to forge a bond with a single songwriter (e.g., Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb). We can read it any way we like, however, and my main takeaway from this album remains those first two songs. In fact, you really have to wonder why "Tell Mama" b/w "I'd Rather Go Blind" is not in the discussion of greatest two-sided singles of all time, with, I don't know, "Don't Be Cruel" b/w "Hound Dog," "Penny Lane" b/w "Strawberry Fields Forever," "It's Too Late" b/w "I Feel the Earth Move," "American Woman" b/w "No Sugar Tonight," or "Back on the Chain Gang" b/w "My City Was Gone." (What's more, as with "Come Together" b/w "Something," I'm not sure why the B-side is not the A-side, but leave that aside.)

"Tell Mama" jumps on with a snappy Muscle Shoals attack that launches at 0:01 and really does not give up for all of its 2:21. The singer is a woman set up to catch the rebound on a failing relationship and she's ready with whatever it takes: sympathy, a listening ear, and the comforts only Mama can provide. Whether the poor guy is crying real tears or just busy getting off, his head is bound to rest upon that bosom on the night of this song, and the realities of the prospect are all in Etta James's voice. "I'd Rather Go Blind," then, is almost a response song, a parallel situation but a shift in the point of view. Say that the man Mama wants to comfort is more of a dog setting up a side piece, and say the woman he is cheating on is tender and good. In that case, "I'd Rather Go Blind" is her song, proceeding from darkest sources of jealous anguish (maybe even that's Mama she sees talking to her man). It's so emotionally raw and yet so tenderly in control you almost don't know what hits you. The singer's weaknesses are also her strengths—her love and her inability to let go of it, even as she dramatically rehearses loss. The very figure of speech this song goes by gives away how much pain we're talking about here, even if it fails to clarify how real or imaginary it is. She would rather give up seeing altogether than to see her man tell Mama.

Well, that's cute, as an analysis, but I'm bound to point out it doesn't work. In "Tell Mama," the singer has herself witnessed the kind of trouble the poor guy's woman is up to. She's no good. Some of the images are practically searing: "She had another man throw you outdoors / Now the same man is wearing your clothes." That's a powerful (and objective) image of humiliation, which only makes Mama more endearing and appealing within the song (even as we sense an element of calculation to her too, because after all remember she's got the poor guy in a vulnerable position). But I feel you would have to be deaf not to be able to hear "I'd Rather Go Blind." It's such a smoldering sad ballad, with an organ playing long, long notes, an electric guitar adding small-scale flourishes, and the horns punctuating, as this woman, utterly forlorn in the moment, tells her story. She sees her man talking to another woman and somehow she senses something between them. It could well be just paranoia on her part. She can't stop looking at him talking to her, and she doesn't want to, but she's afraid to see what she might see. It's a tight narrative close-up of a moment of doubt in a relationship. We have no idea where it leads. It might be a random moment come and gone or it could be more significant. It's just an ambiguous moment brilliantly caught. And then the whole rest of the album (actually including the bonus tracks on the CD version) is pretty good too. Two mountains and a bunch of foothills. Do yourself a favor and don't forget this one exists.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Sanshô dayû, Japan, 124 minutes
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writers: Ogai Mori, Fuji Yahiro, Yoshikata Yoda
Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka, Kinshichi Kodera, Tamekichi Mochizuki
Editor: Mitsuzo Miyata
Cast: Eitaro Shindo, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Masao Shimizu, Akitaka Kono, Keiko Enami, Masahiko Kato

Based on a children's book published in 1915, which was in turn based on a folk tale dating back a millennium, Sansho the Bailiff is a calculating and cruel tour de force of casual human depravity. As if offering balm for its horrors, the film is silvery beautiful, with languorous elaborately framed shots like formal works of art, using a full spectrum of glowing grayscale tones. The beauty blunts only somewhat the harsh black and white realities of this story, which is less about Sansho and more about two children, Zushio and his younger sister Anju, and their parents. Even the folk tale puts Sansho in the title, however. He may be a sideline character but he represents a way of life—the strong man way, with vast wealth, slaves, concubines, and a brutal style.

That's part of Japanese history, from the country's feudal Heian period that provides the movie's setting. What's less part of Japanese history (or at least until halfway through the 20th century) also has a good deal to do with what makes Sansho the Bailiff so cunningly effective. Zushio's and Anju's father, Masauji Taira, is a kind of post-Jesus pre-Enlightenment savant. "Men are created equal," he gently impresses on Zushio. "Everyone is entitled to their happiness." Or at least the pursuit of it, I'm sure. Only two years before the release of this movie, Japan was still occupied by a culturally heavy-handed US which favored such sentiments. It's our good fortune (or maybe my American bias) that it works so well for this movie and story.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (1966)

Read story by Joyce Carol Oates online.

It's hard to imagine this strange, disturbing, and wonderfully exhausting story by Joyce Carol Oates coming from any other time than the 1960s—and it's also interesting to note, in passing, how few stories in this survey (only six of 125) are from the tumultuous period. In fact, though this story appears in two of the anthologies I'm looking at, it's the only '60s story in either of them published later than 1964. It's perfectly straightforward about what it is, a story about a girl of 15, coming into her sexuality but still easily manipulated by more experienced adults. Her name is Connie and she is just learning she can break away from her parents and conduct a life of her own. On the day of this story, she has declined to accompany her father, mother, and older sister on a daylong jaunt to the town picnic, which leaves her alone in the house, luxuriating in her freedom and solitude. But before long a car pulls up in the driveway with two strange men who want to talk to her. They are Arnold Friend, who does most of the talking, and Ellie, who listens to a transistor radio held to his ear and occasionally asks alarming questions such as, "You want me to pull out the phone?" They are obviously up to no good and they are bent on luring her out of the house and into their car for a ride. Arnold knows all kinds of things about Connie: her name, that she is alone there for the day, and other details. Very little is explained. We simply follow the strange and persevering conversation as it presses forward. Our minds begin to spin in different directions. Are they going to rape her and turn her out? Is it possible it's all innocent somehow? Except: "You want me to pull out the phone?" Oates herself seemed to have thrill killers in mind, as she said the story was inspired by an Arizona serial killer, Charles Schmid. The story is also dedicated to Bob Dylan, which Oates has said was because of his song "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." It's a slightly jarring element in an otherwise nearly flawless story about predators in action—based on imagination more than research, I suspect, which unmoors it slightly. Yet at the same time that makes it more fevered and unnerving. Bob Dylan may have felt right in 1966 but now I think her story belongs more to, say, Roy Orbison. (I'm sure that has everything to do with Smooth Talk, the intriguing 1985 movie version of this story, directed by Joyce Chopra, with Treat Williams and Laura Dern.) I've never got far with attempts to read Oates—I'm not even sure why exactly—but this story is great, gnawingly worrisome to read, provoking anxiety hours and days later. You want to know more about these people, not least what happened. But you never can. It's genuinely haunting.

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

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

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Alone Together (2011)

Sherry Turkle is an MIT professor who has spent a career examining the blurry line between humans and the machines they build. I remember that her last book on internet culture also had a keen interest in artificial intelligence (Life on the Screen, from 1995), but it was more sanguine or even optimistic about where it was all headed. Sixteen years later, she is quite evidently troubled. The book is divided into two sections, one on "sociable robots" and the other more generally on recent internet developments, notably social media. The robot section starts with two toy fads of the late '90s, Tamagotchis and Furbies, probing children age 4 to 15 about the sense they have of the aliveness of the creatures. Turkle always comes back to the strange allure of intelligent machines, acknowledging the reality of the appeal and characterizing it as a kind of projection, triggered in many different ways. Humans are hardwired to see faces, for example, reacting sympathetically and emotionally. When Turkle meets the robots Cog and Kismet, a more serious foray into robotics in the early 2000s, she feels flattered when one glances at her. Almost in spite of herself she momentarily thinks she feels some connection with it—as if it could understand her. It's also how many users describe their encounters with various robotic pets, incidentally suggesting a certain unnerving potentiality of them as caregivers and even companions. The second half, when she gets into Facebook (along with Second Life, a range of confessional sites, and more), was even more interesting. She points out how our styles of communication are changing. Suddenly, very few people enjoy sitting around talking on the phone the way they used to, and increasingly a whole generation is rejecting email too. It's more and more about "checking in" various ways, monitoring screens. Now I'm old-fashioned enough that I still like email, but I also don't like to talk on the phone. A complaint Turkle hears more than once is that it's too hard to say goodbyes and hang up. At the last minute, people don't want to let go. I know that experience. The time-shifting approach—I drop you a text or email or even voicemail (no one likes that anymore either, but I'm not sure anyone ever did) and you respond when you can or want—which is usually quickly, in this day and age, one of Turkle's points. What started as a convenience for people on the go has somehow morphed into a new paradigm of understanding time and reality. We are in this together. We can be in touch instantly. Yet we are too busy to actually spend time together. But we can be instantly available, at least for a few seconds of scant attention. We are all in this separate boat at the same time, hence the title of her book. Along the way, Turkle offers lots of provocative anecdotes and discussion, always searching for the touch points of technology and intimacy.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

"Runaway" (2003)

Read story by Alice Munro online.

Like most of us, I have a certain susceptibility to stories involving helpless adorable animals, but I still think it's fair to call this story by Alice Munro devastating. It certainly cast a pall on me for several days. At the same time, I don't think it's fair to call it manipulative. Alice Munro is generally that good, and this story is specifically that good. Clark and Carla are a couple in their 30s, living in the countryside of central Canada. They have a stable for boarding horses and also give riding lessons. A few days before the time of the story a terrible storm has ripped through, damaging property and enabling horses and other livestock to escape. It's been a bad summer, with much rain, which has depressed their business. At the same time, Carla has been developing a relationship with their neighbor, Mrs. Jamieson, who has hired her for housekeeping help. These three characters—their histories and their relations—are complex but in ways that have developed naturally. Clark and Carla have been struggling for years financially, and have different ways of handling that stress. Mrs. Jamieson is older and self-sufficient. She recently lost her husband and Carla was there to help with the nursing. In the immediate aftermath of that death, Mrs. Jamieson has developed something of an overheated regard for Carla. She wants to have tea with her and make her life better. But they are widely separated by age and especially by class. Mrs. Jamieson's feelings are misplaced, likely a passing result of grief. Meanwhile, a small lie Carla told Clark about Mr. Jamieson before his death has snowballed into an awkward situation. I don't want to give away too much about the story because it's the discoveries as much as anything that do the work. Everything that happens is a perfectly natural reflection of the characters as presented. All three are complicated, feel real, and remain unpredictable to the end. I never doubted anything about this story even though it surprised me again and again. There may be human villains in it but we know them well enough to understand their good sides too, if not always their motivations exactly, which are more like everyday human mysteries. Think about it. Who do you know—who do you really understand—who doesn't find ways to surprise and even shock you? This is a great story, and it leaves a mark.

Runaway by Alice Munro

Sunday, August 27, 2017

"The Misfits" (1957)

Story by Arthur Miller not available online.

In my rambling internet research on Arthur Miller's story, which in 1961 became a movie with Marilyn Monroe, I found it characterized as a novella (what I read was less than 20 printed pages), found unsubstantiated word of a 2002 novel version, and more often had to pick through information about the movie, for which Miller wrote the screenplay. I know the movie pretty well, and Miller's stage productions to some degree, but I was surprised by what I found in this short story. I'm sure this betrays my own stereotyping (is it the Clark Kent glasses Arthur Miller wore?) but it's way more outdoorsy and, um, masculinist than I expected. It focuses on a degraded mustanging operation of the three principals, all men (the most studly of them is named Gay, for what that's worth). Roslyn is a simmering presence who remains off stage. But she's on Gay's mind—Gay is her 46-year-old boyfriend who worries she might be sleeping with others, including his friends. In the movie Gay is played by Clark Gable and Roslyn by Marilyn Monroe—she is definitely on stage. (As a point of interest, The Misfits was to be the last film for both of them.) The short story details the round-up procedure used by the men, scaring wild horses with a plane diving at them and herding them to a rocky plateau where they can be picked off one by one with a pickup truck and a shrewd if cruel strategy. They get even fewer horses here than they did in the movie. It's pitiful. The horses are pathetically outmatched—and all they will bring from the rendering plant comes to about $100, divided between the three. They feel vaguely ashamed about what they're doing, but Gay keeps trying to cheer them with his motto, "Better than wages!" Yes, they all agree, it's better than wages, but they are still vaguely ashamed, even (or especially) Gay. What surprised me is how much, once into it, "The Misfits" has the structure and rhythms of a nature story. More specifically, it's on the order of a hunting story, but the hunt has been debased by the superiority of their technology and the weakness of the animals (there is a colt here that particularly breaks everyone's heart). This is much less like James Fenimore Cooper and Natty Bumppo and much more like Sarah Palin emptying automatic weapons into wolves from a helicopter. The only possible justification would be financial, and that is shown up for what it is in this story. Even in 1957, a hundred dollars split three ways was barely adequate for three days' work. In its sense of tragedy, "The Misfits" feels like something an East Coast playwright might come up with. But even that is a remarkably subtle element here. This is good stuff.

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Super (2010)

USA, 96 minutes
Director/writer: James Gunn
Photography: Steve Gainer
Music: Tyler Bates
Editor: Cara Silverman
Cast: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Andre Royo, Nathan Fillion, Rob Zombie, James Gunn

If superhero movies have turned into something of a cliché—or perhaps more accurately into a thriving industry with a full spectrum of manifold overbred clichés—the psychologically realistic treatments of them are not far behind. Indeed, they probably belong on that spectrum of clichés themselves now. Alan Moore and Frank Miller impressed when they worked out the approach 30 years ago in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (respectively). Batman is the natural here, as the basic idea is always that these figures don't have superpowers but they do have perverse personal motivations to "fight crime." They often work at night, and well outside the law. They aren't exactly role models with utility belt gimmicks the way they were in the '50s and '60s.

Super starts from this point, with another foot planted firmly in a certain quirky indie comedy ethos, signaled by casting Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and Kevin Bacon in the principal roles, by the use of a kind of low-budget naturalism in the action scenes, and by Tyler Bates's wincingly twee score, which is at once cloyingly sweet and archly i - r - o - n - i - c (sample here, I dare you to listen to more than 20 seconds). Director and writer James Gunn has, of course, gone on to be captain of his own Marvel franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy, and it's not really hard to see how he got from here to there. Equally telling credits for Gunn include screenplays for the 2002 remake of Scooby-Doo and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Yet somehow Super is greater than the sum of its puny parts, offering that rarest of things, a transcendent superhero movie.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

"Murderers" (1971)

Read story by Leonard Michaels online.

Leonard Michaels is not a writer I know well. He's often compared with Philip Roth, who I know better. Michaels was born the same year as Roth and similarly interested in the experience of American Jews in 20th-century East Coast environs, notably New York. "Murderers" is a very short story, only about five printed pages, that has the feeling of an anecdote, or is built around an anecdote, and enlarged from there. Somehow it ended up in two of the anthologies I've been going through. In Brooklyn, a group of young adolescent boys has discovered that "the rabbi" and his wife often have afternoon sex with the windows open. The boys have naturally enough made a habit of spying on this activity, though it requires that they do so from a precarious perch on a water tank. The rabbi and his wife are mysterious, with unexplained details, perhaps the most notable of which is that the wife is bald-headed, and wears a variety of wigs. The unnamed first-person narrator is adult and sophisticated enough to describe what they spy on as, "In psychoanalysis, this is 'The Primal Scene.'" Yet nothing is made of the woman's baldness, which suggests a bizarre fetish, or more likely, the way we understand it now, cancer. Be that as it may, she and the rabbi are purely sexualized objects to the boys, and indeed, soon enough, one of them begins to masturbate, which doesn't seem to be taken as unusual by any of them. (I never had the circle-jerk experience and am always a little amazed when I hear accounts of them actually happening.) Then, however, there is a dreadful accident that leads to their discovery by the rabbi and eventually the life-changing punishment he inflicts on them. I say "life-changing" but it's little more traumatic than anything else about adolescence. It's a strange, violent, disconsolate story. There's an air of despondency and fatalism about it, like an English boarding school story. It is at pains to be comic—that's in the very conception of the accident at deepest levels—yet it's also not very funny at all. What's more, Michaels is clearly a witty and urbane writer. He's reminiscent of Roth stylistically as well as thematically. So it's a pretty neat trick he pulls in this short story, like a series of rabbit punches playing with your expectations. Spying on the sex of the long-married is ripe with comic potential. But wait, what? She's bald? The detail works like a bolt of anxiety, a tiny emotional shock to the system. Not to mention what happens to one of the boys—what happens to all of them, as a result. Overflowing with comic instincts, "Murderers" dares you to laugh.

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

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