Friday, August 18, 2017

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

USA, 92 minutes
Director: Robert Wise
Writers: Edmund H. North, Harry Bates
Photography: Leo Tover
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editor: William Reynolds
Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Frances Bavier, Lock Martin

In the old movie business parlance (pre-'60s), a B movie was a low-budget shorter feature, often in a genre style, intended for the back half of double features. The A movie was the main attraction. It was full of stars and class and intended to win awards or make big box office or both. I would have guessed that The Day the Earth Stood Still, a science fiction picture with a theremin soundtrack I have been watching all my life, was a B movie, but no. It had a budget. The special effects are restrained, even primitive, but they are effective. The director is Robert Wise, a student of Orson Welles, whose career spanned The Magnificent Ambersons and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music between. Patricia Neal, an intriguing versatile cross between a character player and a leading lady, had a career starting to bust out all over. And the score is by Bernard Herrmann, a rising A player, who was among the first to use the theremin for the movies, followed shortly by thousands of B movie science fiction for the rest of the decade. In fact, the spooky electronic instrument was almost exclusively associated with science fiction movies until Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys tore it away for their own purposes. Pere Ubu returned the favor decades later but that's all another subject for another day. With everything else, The Day the Earth Stood Still is basically patient zero for science fiction theremin movies.

Reportedly Wise was interested in this project because he was a believer in UFOs. Indeed, the picture rings with its message, an uplifting one even, a fervent belief in a kind of idealized United Nations vision and proto hippie yearning for peaceful coexistence. These are the things I like about the movie myself—with my appreciation for Star Trek, it's possible that I just like a good stirring liberal skit. But actually there's a good deal of art and old-fashioned craft to this movie. At the same time, it reminds me a little of a friend I spoke to once who was "against" UFOs. It wasn't that he didn't believe they existed, but rather that he didn't believe aliens from other planets deserved the degradation of associating with humanity.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853)

Read story by Herman Melville online.

I had forgotten that Herman Melville gave his classic short story the subtitle "A Story of Wall-Street." At first this confused me, thinking of the modern version with skyscrapers and superfast computers. But I think a fair translation of the subtitle is actually more like "A Story of Temping." That's the dynamic it has always had for me (at least, after I'd spent some time temping and then circled back to the story) and ultimately it makes sense of what's often taken as a mystifying or even whimsical and certainly odd little tale. A scrivener in the 19th century was a low-level clerk doing the work of a photocopy machine much more slowly. A photocopy machine might be the best way to think of Bartleby, whose famous calling card is "I would prefer not to." The phrase smacks of countless fits of pique I've seen in office temp workers, including myself a few times, not to mention photocopy machines. You are often right up-close and personal with the absurd in such positions. This is also a situation comedy episode of deference and circumspection beyond reason. Melville's story describes the point at which Bartleby may be said to have snapped, though it is a gentle and barely audible sound, and then the aftermath. The narrator is a principal at the law firm where Bartleby was employed. One day he imperiously calls Bartleby into his office to assist him with proofreading a document (accomplished by one person reading the original aloud while the other scans along on the copy). The abrupt interruption is just one of those indignities of the office day—in 1853 when Melville wrote this story as much as in the 1990s when I toiled as a scrivener (then called "word processor"), and no doubt today as well. No doubt. It's the way office life and work goes. People melt down and blow up and leave behind shrapnel in the form of anecdotes told over and over. In this story it is Bartleby's dogged refusal to work again, with his simple affirmation, "I would prefer not to." This is not an isolated case. I knew a temp who was habitually late to his job—the front-line receptionist for a work group, who spent his long days answering calls and taking messages. One day the entire group was scheduled for a daylong morale-building field trip event. But they couldn't leave the building until Michael (the Bartleby in this story) arrived to "hold the fort down" all day by himself. The group manager was a tiny woman in her '50s who dressed very smartly and liked things to run efficiently. She was furious he was late and dressed him down in front of everyone. He waited for her to leave an opening, probably a question of some kind, to which he replied in a stage voice projected to the rear of the group, "Oh shut up you old cunt, I'm here now." Needless to say he was fired on the spot. Perhaps he works now in the same dead letter office where Bartleby finally arrived. Ah Michael! Ah humanity!

"Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville (Library of America)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Detroit (2017)

It's hard to deny the sheer force of the latest movie from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a scathing horrorshow treatment of one incident in one "long hot summer" in one American city in the '60s. It's 1967 and it's Detroit, but it's also 2017 and Black Lives Matter. The movie is historical but the prism is today. Bigelow and Boal, who previously collaborated on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, focus here on a long and harrowing scene of police brutality and fatal misdeeds during a field investigation inside a residence motel. Meanwhile, outside, there's a riot goin' on, literally. The scene in the motel sustains a remarkable amount of intensity and it goes on for a long time. The movie left me well wrung out. The true facts of the case on which it's based are somewhat murky. The officers were acquitted at trial, but that was a matter of legal technicalities, wrongfully taken confessions or some such. No one doubts their guilt for at least three murders. But not all the details of that night are understood or agreed on, so Bigelow and Boal have made choices to address gaps and conflicts in the story. The results may be controversial but we know police behave this way. The details serve a greater truth. So I was basically OK with these scenes, above and beyond the discomfort of witnessing them. But along about 40 minutes into the mayhem I started to notice that the movie seemed to be making another point: torture does not work. Of course, that reminded me of their last picture, Zero Dark Thirty, which was controversial not only because it showed torture working, but did so within the frame that it was part of a greater truth—awful things happen in the fog of war, and how can anyone be held morally accountable if the results are what we want? (This is also known as "history is written by the victors.") (except in the case of the Confederate South, see also Charlottesville) On the torture issue, Detroit goes the other direction, not that I want to imply it's some kind of shell game. If I went into the movie less inclined to give Bigelow and Boal the benefit of the doubt, the effect of Detroit, as I said, is hard to deny. It's vivid, intense, and searing, which are also generally the hallmarks of Bigelow's pictures, certainly since she came into her own with The Hurt Locker. But Detroit is also heavy-handed and clankingly obvious—you can argue that's because it has to be, because it reflects a reality too long unacknowledged, even now. Fair warning. It is a blunt force object and it's coming at your face. Yet as I mull over the experience of this movie, I keep remembering things like how the bad cops are implicitly portrayed as isolated bad apples. People higher up the chain are onto them but haven't been able to get them yet. My impression of reality is more that a lot of those people up the chain are just bad apples that got promoted. Once again, see also Charlottesville.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Manchild in the Promised Land (1965)

Claude Brown grew up in Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s. He survived it and his story is in this book. His survival is due chiefly, but not only, to his instinctive aversion for heroin, which he calls a plague for that part of New York City in those years. He published this memoir when he was 28, in 1965. By then he had worked as a cosmetics salesman, a jazz pianist, and other assorted jobs. He left Harlem and lived in Greenwich Village for a few years after he was 17. He also survived because he had the wisdom to stop doing crime after he turned 16. Before that he dealt reefer, pulled con jobs, fought a lot in gangs, and was generally a part of street culture. He died in 2002, at the age of 74. He only wrote one more book but also went on to get a college degree and work all his life as a community organizer and public speaker. Brown's voice is his own but his narrative skills are mostly limited to anecdotes, which don't always connect up well. He has many stories about his mother and father, his two sisters, and especially his youngest brother, nicknamed Pimp from an early age. But there's no consistent through-line or development, beyond escape and/or survival. Maybe that's enough—it certainly was for me when I first read this in the '80s. The stories are even more cloudy regarding his pals through the years, because there are so many names and generally not enough information to sort them. I knew I was in trouble when one character was named Danny and another Dunny, and sure enough, I never quite got them straight. Still, Brown obviously has a lot of heart to make it through everything he does. Many others didn't. He has lots of interesting points about street slang and street life of the times, and lots of intriguing encounters with people and with racism too, of course. I was glad to find out he lived a long and productive life beyond this memoir. He has interesting views of the times too, such as the rise of Black Muslims in the '50s. There is also a Christian sect called Coptics, with roots in African and black culture. "Black" itself was a relatively new term at the time of this book and Brown regards it with some skepticism. He doesn't like "Negro" either but seems most comfortable with "colored." So there's also a lot of innate interest here related to the times it chronicles. My old paperback of it sold it as "A Modern Classic of the Black Experience," but at this point it's actually much older.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Loong Boonmee raleuk chat, Thailand / UK / France / Germany / Spain / Netherlands, 114 minutes
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Writers: Phra Sripariyattiweti, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Photography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Music: Penguin Villa
Editor: Lee Chatametikool
Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Geerasak Kulhong

It's official. According to the rankings of 21st-century films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, the critics (generic plural) are kookoo for the baffling Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. They just can't agree on which of his movies they like best. Tropical Malady remains the perennial and/or aggregated consensus favorite, presently at #9, its highest position ever. Blissfully Yours, an earlier picture, has followed a more erratic path, entering the list some years ago in the mid-200s, falling off it entirely for a year, and then spiking to the top 20 for a few years before drifting down. Last year it went from #23 to #71.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives not only has the best title but was also the first movie I happened to see by Weerasethakul, and maybe for that reason it's my favorite. As much as I can say I have a favorite. Certainly the first thing you see from such a strange sensibility is often the one that sticks with you hardest (looking at you, Eraserhead). The best parts of Uncle Boonmee are funny, spooky, beautiful, and startlingly matter-of-fact about the loopy spirituality (recalling that "loopy," like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder). Its nighttime jungle scenes are gorgeous, shadowy, confounding, pad-footed, eerie—for many scenes, even sitting in a theater, you have to let your eyes adjust to the day for night filter to make out the cryptic images, shapes, and movements. The critics have kept it solidly in the top 40 on the list since shortly after its release, and last year it moved from #38 to #18. I like it, so I'm happy for its good fortunes this way, but these movies by Weerasethakul are not easy.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

"The Story of a Scar" (1973)

Story by James Alan McPherson not available online.

This story by James Alan McPherson has a bit of a tricky setup in its frame. Told first-person and set in a doctor's waiting room, the story's narrator is the listener more than the teller. The other person in the waiting room is a woman with a dramatic scar across her face. Somewhat rudely, because the two are strangers, the narrator asks her how she got it. In fact, he asks her a couple of times before she responds. Then she unloads it on him, brooking no interruption. It's a story that pulls against expectations, a romantic dispute between two men with her in the middle. It's a little horrifying but never less than interesting. Many obvious expectations are thwarted along the way. I liked this story—it flies once the narrative momentum sets in, which is early. But it has elements that confuse me. I don't know what to make of the narrator. By story's end his intention seems to be to take advantage of her sexually. She recognizes something creepy in him. "Black guys like you with them funny eyeglasses are a real trip," she says early. "You got to know everything. You sit in corners and watch people." Her sense of him seems confirmed at the end, after her story is finished. The violence and abuse in her story is harrowing. The narrator momentarily sounds like he wants to get away from her as fast as he can. But then: "And then I remembered the most important question, without which the entire exchange would have been wasted. I turned to the woman, now drawn together in the red plastic chair, as if struggling to sleep in a cold bed. 'Sister,' I said, careful to maintain a casual air. 'Sister ... what is your name?'" This finish is the least ambiguous evidence there's something off about him, but it's not isolated. His abrupt focus on the scar is almost insolent, as well as his own story that he is at the clinic to treat a broken nose caused by an accident during sex—insolent and unsettling. He gives away these things about himself, but not much about what he wants, or expects to get. Maybe she's right and he wants to sit in corners and know everything. Whatever it is he takes it as understood. But it's not, exactly. And that leaves me feeling somehow not comfortable with where we are left. I understand that makes this an effective story—and it is, in more ways than one—but it left me with more anxiety than I bargained for. It just doesn't turn out any specific way. It leaves you hanging.

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

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Blankets (2003)

Craig Thompson's graphic novel was highly regarded on its release—Time magazine named it the best of its kind that year—and it holds up pretty well. Set in Wisconsin and Michigan, it's a coming-of-age memoir of a poignant high school period, remembered almost 10 years later. Graphic novels often seem to lend themselves well to memoir, partly perhaps because drawing styles are inevitably personal, like autographs. (This still doesn't explain Harvey Pekar, who wrote the scripts for his comic book memoirs and then dragooned other artists into illustrating them.) Blankets has some interesting and unexpected features. Both Thompson and Raina, the girl he briefly falls for, come from conservative Christian milieus. Thompson appears to have left it behind since. But he remembers when things like Bible verses mattered as much as anything else in life, if not more. At the same time, Bible verses were competing for his attention with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Bjork. He always wanted to draw, and the art here is always good, often inspired. The title plays on blankets of snow, a blanket that Raina makes for him, and the blankets he shared with his younger brother Phil, with whom he slept for years growing up. In many ways, the story is as much about Phil as Raina. Thompson's love affair is one of those strange high school things. They meet in a church camp. They live in separate states. They exchange letters. Infatuation grows. She invites him to visit for two weeks and tender young teen love follows. They're both Christians, both underage, both under the watchful eye of all available adults. It's never a story of sexual awakening because it couldn't be. As it happens, Raina's parents are divorcing. Her father has recently moved to his own apartment. This is a terrible calamity for the Christian family, and that's what Raina is reaching out of. So, unsurprisingly, the love affair is doomed. But getting there is a nice story—too candid in some places, too precious in others, but mostly a swift and compelling tale of recognizable people with recognizable problems, making their way by their best lights. Graphic novels like this make me think I really need to look at more of them.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

File Under: Easy Listening (1994)

During the great grunge apotheosis of 1994 I seemed to be spending most of my time listening to the Pet Shop Boys, for what that's worth, to accompany all the crises of the time, personal and otherwise. But the noisy rock albums were well piled around as well. How could they not be? If I never quite caught all the way up with F.U.E.L. (and/or FU:EL, the alternative titles for this alternative album by one of alternative's favorite sons, Bob Mould), I plead undue fascination with the Sugar EP of the year before when I was in the mood for Mould blasts, Beaster, plus my certain (if passing) exhaustion at that point with aural sludge. Checking in with the internet now, I see the album is regarded in some quarters as the single best by Sugar, with hosannas for the scrubbed cudgel of Mould's production and the surprising tunefulness at the center of the welter, a well-known Mould feature. I mean, wasn't he a key part of inventing exactly thatt? Some hailed FU:EL as a rare species of true power pop. Others noted Mould's appreciation of My Bloody Valentine's dynamics of pummeling attack and winsome melodies. (In turn, MBV have to be counted as acolytes of Husker Du in the first place.) I pass these points along by way of context and general interest. Sometimes, for me, the much vaunted tunefulness here is little more than a kind of sing-songy monotony ("Your Favorite Thing," "Gee Angel," "Believe What You're Saying"). But I can't deny how often it works on me even so, especially with regular exposure, as things in this set continually reveal themselves—in the guitar play, in the hooks, in the mix, in the words, in whatever worked. Take the lift from David Bowie's "Heroes" for "What You Want It to Be," for example (sans Fripp's part unfortunately), which once recognized is almost as audacious and shocking as it is apt. Because actually it is apt—Bowie and the hulking grungers (and the hardcorers before them) were equally outsider freaks, and the best understood the point of melody. But also, however you want to argue it, there's nothing new going on here either—nothing new to power pop, or to Bob Mould, or even to putting pretty music inside roaring music. In that way, F.U.E.L. is a little conservative, more a summation than innovation, which you probably already knew. It's worth spending time with too, if you didn't.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

"The Sojourner" (1950)

Read story by Carson McCullers online.

This story by Carson McCullers is a nice meditation on time and loss. John Ferris, whose most recent residence is Paris, has returned to the US for the funeral of his father in Georgia. Now it is the last day before he returns and he is in New York, and by chance happens to see his ex-wife. He has not seen her for many years. At first he follows her, struck by the strange coincidence of seeing her again. But finally he catches up to her and greets her. She has since remarried and had children—she and John never did. John knew she had a family but still he is unsettled to meet them, as she invites him for an early supper. She and her husband are going to the theater that night and it's all the time they can spare on such short notice. This is a wonderfully done story, somehow involving and poignant from the start. John has a complex mix of feelings seeing his ex-wife's life. Her son Billy, a boy of about 8, is friendly until he learns John used to be married to his mother. Then he becomes edgy and confused and finally has to be sent to bed. John exaggerates the qualities of his life, claiming he will soon marry the woman he's been seeing, even as he realizes his life has been a long series of short relationships. (There's a terrific last scene in Paris after his return, when John is seen attempting to connect with the 6-year-old son of his present mistress. It doesn't really seem to take, though it makes the boy hopeful even as it makes John sad.) I like the way there is so little incident to the story but so much of life swirls around in it: death, loss, divorce, regret. We're just seeing the aftermath but also realizing how, in many ways, all of our everyday lives is aftermath to something. John is self-deluded, but he is more lost in the world than malevolent. He tells lies and exaggerates about himself, but not to hurt anyone. Only because it hurts him to view the realities of what he has become. They both still have feelings for one another, knowing they will never be acted on. When his ex-wife sits down to play the piano for him, while her husband is seeing to their boy, she plays a song that is meaningful to them. It's also significant that she knew John's father, and the news of his death pains her. This story is done so simply and with such clarity. This is how people behave, and this is how they behave with one another. There's not a single frill to the whole thing, and it's only 10 pages, yet so much is packed into it. It's remarkable.

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

Sunday, July 30, 2017

"Cruel and Barbarous Treatment" (1939)

Story by Mary McCarthy not available online.

Mary McCarthy published this story in 1939 and later included it, without the mysterious scare quotes used in the Robert Penn Warren collection, as one of the sections in her episodic first novel in 1942, The Company She Keeps. It was written in the early days of her marriage to the literary critic Edmund Wilson, from 1938 to 1945, her second marriage. It's an icy-cold story of divorce, told from the point of view of an unnamed wife, who is having an affair with a "Young Man" (my scare quotes). She describes the emotional progress of the affair, how it starts as a secret, and then becomes a secret to be kept only from her husband. She relishes each stage—the delicious secret itself, and then the delicious reveals. Eventually that includes telling her husband. She senses her marriage is headed for divorce, but also seems to believe it will then go on to a remarriage. She has no scruples about hurting her lover that way—after all, look at what he is doing to her husband. The description of these events continues, in long sentences and sprawling paragraphs. It is so granular at points that it feels like an insect being dismembered in slow motion. At the same time, the wife's behavior may be "cruel and barbarous" (not sure whose scare quotes those are). There's a familiar childish id down there controlling the action, which seems to be mere irrational acting out. The idea in her mind comes up more than once: divorce and then a remarriage. She is trying to win an epic power struggle more than remove her husband from her life. In fact, she's not happy when she sees her husband accepting her choice to keep and flaunt a lover, even judging her a little. Her bid for ultimate control has inadvertently liberated him. That wasn't supposed to be part of the plan. If the totality of the story is a little off-putting at least it's probably intended that way. I haven't read much McCarthy so I'm not sure how typical it is. It's hard to prepare for the level of rage. That's what's startling and ultimately so disturbing about it. This is a story told by a soul utterly consumed with rage. It'll get you by the throat if you let it.

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

Friday, July 28, 2017

Force Majeure (2014)

Turist, Sweden / France / Norway / Denmark, 120 minutes
Director/writer: Ruben Ostlund
Photography: Fredrik Wenzel
Music: Ola Flottum
Editor: Jacob Secher Schulsinger
Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Brady Corbet

This was all new to me before I saw the movie, but "force majeure" turns out to be a term used in contract law. It's a common clause, according to Wikipedia, "that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, or an event described by the legal term 'act of God' (hurricane, flood, earthquake, volcanic eruption, etc.), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract."

You learn something new every day. In Force Majeure the extraordinary event or act of God is an avalanche, which occurs during the ski resort vacation of a middle-class Swedish family—husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two anxious children. It's a strange and insistently particular premise, but you know how it goes with movies—there was one from a few years earlier, The Loneliest Planet, that turned on a similar response to a similar remarkable incident. That incident and response occur in the first 12 minutes of Force Majeure (a bit further into The Loneliest Planet) but as a matter of form I'm issuing a spoiler alert now because I'm talking about it next.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"The Necklace" (1884)

Read story by Guy de Maupassant online.

There's a kind of inevitability now about the future of the short story in reading Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace" (also translated as "The Diamond Necklace"). I'm speaking of the twist ending, of course. Maupassant is probably best known for the device, in his own time and later, a master or at least frequent retailer of it. O. Henry caught the drift later in the US, and for much of the 20th century surprise endings were a regular feature in short stories everywhere, even the sole reason for many to exist. It's presently seen most in short-short stories, or flash fiction, or sudden fiction. or whatever these microscopic forms are traveling by now ("twitterature" for 140-character stories)—a novelty, which is probably as it should be. Maupassant was also considered a naturalist and you can see that here in the attention to the long-term effects of class constraints, the other reason this story may be so widely anthologized. The twist here, after all this time, is not actually hard to see coming, and it's more on the order of heavy-handed moral irony. The main character, Mathilde Loisel, is hard to make out and deceptively complex. You think she is one thing but she is another, and while she eventually becomes sympathetic she's never exactly likable (compare Madame de in Madame de...). The story may not surprise us much, but it's only incidentally shallow. Henry James, W. Somerset Maugham, and Vladimir Nabokov all paid literary tributes to it. There are interesting currents at play in it: pride, humility, integrity, and a kind of secularized faith are all issues raised in a story short enough that it works almost more like a parable. But the moral is not simple. It has many deceptive layers. "Be true to yourself," you might reduce it to. But that is both in the sense of acting truly on who you are, and of taking responsibility for your actions. If you're so inclined, you can read elements of punishment into it even as you read elements of transgression. But none of those judgments have to be there at all either. It can simply be, down at the base level of literary naturalism, the human beast and human psychology running their endless cycles.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant

Monday, July 24, 2017

Baby Driver (2017)

Despite its relative star power—Jamie, Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Kevin Spacey, along with handfuls of familiar who's-thats—Baby Driver is all car chases and lovingly crafted soundtrack. It's the new movie from director and writer Edgar Wright, director and cowriter of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which I love, Shaun of the Dead, which I like, and Hot Fuzz, meh. Before we go any further, let's linger a moment on the best point, the soundtrack: the Beach Boys, "Let's Go Away for Awhile" ... Bob & Earl, "Harlem Shuffle" (the Foundation, "Harlem Shuffle") ... the Commodores, "Easy" (Sky Ferreira, "Easy") ... the Damned, "Neat Neat Neat" ... Focus, "Hocus Pocus" ... Golden Earring, "Radar Love" ... Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, "Bellbottoms" ... Barbara Lewis, "Baby I'm Yours" ... Carla Thomas, "B-A-B-Y"—kind of a theme song for obvious reasons. That's a fraction, it's all great stuff, and it's pretty much nonstop, though too often it slips into the background. The story is a bunch of gangster cliches about a getaway driver named Baby. He's young but has tinnitus so he plays music constantly through earbuds to help handle the condition. While the technology of interest in Baby Driver is mainly the old-fashioned screeching and skidding internal combustion engine on wheels, the homely old iPod gets its share of the glory too. Baby carries around a bunch of them because he has so many songs (and most look like Classics too, because he's just that kind of guy). The tunes chill him out and help him focus when he's ditching the scene of the crime with carfuls of henchmen and often the cops in pursuit. Which brings us to the carbon-spewing main feature of this attraction. There is some mighty fine stunt driving on display here, if perhaps a bit too heavy in the sound design on a certain stuttering, chattering skid noise (reminiscent of a Hanna-Barbera sound effect from the '50s and '60s). Oh lordy, that Baby cuts around those Atlanta streets like nobody's business. These scenes may not be up to parts of the Mad Max / Road Warrior franchise or certain Asian action pictures (thinking of some Jackie Chan scenes), but if it's not too old school to say, they're at least as exciting as Bullitt, The French Connection, and Vanishing Point, all of which thrilled me. But that was circa 1971 and this is 2017 and I'm sorry to say the massive carbon loads of these scenes brought me down, notwithstanding that some of the best action is actually on foot. The story is studiously stock boy meets girl desperation hit the road heat and flash stuff, often dependent on wincing coincidence to move it along. The leads—Ansel Elgort as Baby and Lily James as Debora—are adequate, young and attractive and fitted out with strange and unbelievable backstories. The movie is not really about them, however, and they and the rest of the cast rarely get in the way of what the movie is actually about, which as I said is car chases and the soundtrack. When that's pumped up good, which it often is, this movie rides a soaring wave, as long as you don't mind seeing figurative plumes of carbon billowing off the digital screen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

"Paste" (1899)

In case you ever start to worry about Henry James's humanity—which you shouldn't, but it's understandable if you do—this story may provide a tonic. A young man with an interesting name, Arthur Prime, has recently lost his father, and then, only a few months later, his stepmother. His cousin Charlotte is with him to help with things—she grieves her aunt too. Arthur asks Charlotte to help him sort a last box he found wedged into a corner of a closet, out of sight and nearly inaccessible. In it are paste jewelry (as in title) and other souvenirs of her past as an actress. As the second wife of a (widowed, of course) clergyman, Arthur's stepmother forever left and disavowed her theatrical past, an occupation that is scandalous enough even in her past. Charlotte expects the pearls she finds there, at least, are real. But Arthur furiously denies it. He appears to hate even the idea of this part of his stepmother's life. He felt closer to her even than to his own mother, lost to him young. He's so adamant about it that Charlotte accepts its truth without question, but asks if she can keep them and the rest of the contents of the box as a keepsake of her aunt's. Arthur obviously thinks that's crazy, but assents, glad to be rid of it all. You can maybe guess where this is going, especially if you know a story by Guy de Maupassant called "The Necklace." A friend of Charlotte's clues her in later and swears the pearls are real. It's the story's resolution that's surprisingly warm and insightful, turning the whole thing into a sharply observed character portrait. It frankly surprised me, given all the artificialities of the last I'd read by him (The Awkward Age) still ringing in my ears. "Paste" is anything but artificial. The title is just an interesting play on the themes. Of course, this has its sources in James's interest in the theater and theater life (not to mention Guy de Maupassant). But I'm struck even more here by his interest in character studies and portrait painting. He dismissed Impressionism as a fraud, and at least two of his characters extol the virtues of portraiture as the one true art. I have some sympathy for the view, though I think it holds more interest in photography than painting (at least until the selfie era). "Paste" is a character study illustrated in words, and a really nice story too.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 17 pages

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

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Know Your Product (1977-1978)

This package, released in the '90s, is branded as "the best of the Saints," a roaring whining not-to-be-missed '70s punk-rock outfit out of Australia, when really it's just more or less the band's first two albums, which fit snugly together on a single CD. For all I know, that could really be the best of the Saints—'70s punk-rock bands famously shot wads early and fast—but this is all I know of them, except they're still going, with lots of breakups and people in and out since then. I can't even remember how this CD got into my house (garage sale?) but I'm glad it did. For me, all punk-rock starts with the Ramones and thus I'm often most partial to the contemporaries feeling their way to the same ends in the post-glam twilight, for example the Suicide Commandos and the Vibrators. The Saints, who got together originally in 1974, are a pure chip off that fine old block. The sound comes at you like a stuttering wallop of sludge: pogo bass, squalling buzz saw guitars with gentle bolts of feedback, and a gentleman with a hawk of phlegm at the back of his throat who sounds vaguely dissatisfied with all things. But this is not about bludgeoning—the love for pop melody the Saints inherited from glam is still there, in every track (for otherwise it would have no reason to exist). The propulsion turns explosive on modest little killer rockers like "This Perfect Day," "One Way Street," and "Run Down," which can about snap the neck if you're not careful. For more clues, let's go to the covers on the first album, from 1977, (I'm) Stranded (some of them first released on a 1977 EP): "Lipstick on Your Collar," a Connie Francis hit in 1959 ... "River Deep Mountain High," the famous crash and burn of Tina Turner and Phil Spector in 1966 ... "Kissin' Cousins," an Elvis Presley hit in 1964 ... and "Wild About You," by the Missing Links, a '60s Australian garage-rock forebear. I love the title of (I'm) Stranded for the New York Dolls reference almost as much as for the cheek of starting it with a parenthetical. That's so pop! The second album, from 1978, Eternally Yours, is starting to show more shreds of ambition, such as an intermittent horn section or harmonica. There are also changes on the CD, such as "Do the Robot" for "International Robots," which is generally an improvement. The sequencing is different too. Robert Christgau complained in the '70s about the horns and he has a point, but I'm also interested in next steps for punk-rockers: strings, synths, horns, acoustic, African rhythm, etc. Horns represent a certain bent toward soul that I like. But I admit a little of it goes a long way so I'm glad it's sparing here. Know Your Product is like a great live set, with songs and hooks crawling all over each other to make it irresistible. I'm going to just go ahead and call it essential.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

"The Outstation" (1924)

Story by W. Somerset Maugham not available online.

I thought this story by W. Somerset Maugham was pretty good, though unfortunately marred by comparison with an earlier and better story in the collection with similar themes by Joseph Conrad, "An Outpost of Progress." Both are set in British colonies across the globe and involve conflicts encountered by the white men stationed there. Conrad is concerned with the violence and barbarism of colonialism, whereas Maugham appears to have more the portability of the British class system on his mind, with an exotic background that somehow forces the conflict. It's as effective in its way as the Conrad, but not as visceral. Maybe that's what I miss. Maugham's story has the more interesting characters. It's told third-person omniscient, mostly from the point of view of the ranking white man, Mr. Warburton, at a Malaysia station of a private trading company. Warburton is an effete upper-class toady, a carefully defined "snob." His new assistant, Mr. Cooper, is a blustering fellow on the rise from the working class. He is competent in his work, but rejects the dress and manner of Warburton as phony. Cooper knows well on a blunt level the injustice of the class system, but it is Warburton who is more capable of kindness to "inferiors." Cooper beats and mistreats his servants, calls them "niggers," and can't understand Warburton's objections any more than he can understand the requirement to dress for dinner. Warburton is caught by the situation, as Cooper is too good at his job to move him elsewhere and replace him. They modulate from being strained with one another, to hostile, to quarreling, and finally they stop speaking altogether. "Each lived in his own house as though the other did not exist." I don't think I'm giving too much away if I let you know that going from bad to worse is the basic narrative arc here. But here also is where the comparison with Conrad becomes apt again. Maugham continually erects a stiff upper lip British sensibility around the details that leaves things just a little more distanced than I think is called for. These characters are complex and interesting and in vital conflict with one another. I wanted it all more out in the open—or perhaps a better view of the inside—and the result of the disaffection is that the conflict feels slighted a little, as if it were something proposed as a thought experiment of some kind. Or is that just the comparison with the Conrad again?

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

It's a strange feeling to go back to something so adolescent, by definition, at a time when adolescence is far more memory than reality. It's easy enough to see why I fell in love with this book when I was 15. The language is a torrential force in its own right, that cocky, wheedling, judgmental, insecure fine whine of the teenager in living angst—the invisible, the unheard, yearning to be seen and heard. Holden Caulfield is no one I would like to know anymore (if I ever did—more like I felt I was him) (there's a telling parenthetical). When I see him in public now I go in the other direction as soon as possible. And yet it's impossible not to have at least some affection for the poor guy. Details I never noticed before: how big he is, over six foot two. How often he uses the word "really," like a tic. The book is known for its use of the word "phony" but I'd bet "really" is in there even more. I really would. That singing narrative voice was J.D. Salinger's great gift, I think, and his most famous novel is one of the best examples. I'm almost, not quite, as well-read as Holden Caulfield now, so I caught more of the literary references. The Catcher in the Rye is narrow, in a way, with its Manhattan and East Coast preoccupations. It's a novel about an upper-middle-class prep school kid who's a little high-strung. If I had only his problems I'd be doing a lot better already—it's open to that kind of class-based derision, I can see that better now. Yet it transcends prep school and Manhattan and class. Holden Caulfield gets inside your head as much as any other first-person fictional character, and he's on a profound quest too, looking for significance in a world of phony surface. He reminds us of that adolescent idealism whose momentum, if we are lucky, carries us through middle age, when all the hard realities strike. It's easy to snort over his small problems, particularly the ones he creates himself in his own fatuous stupidity, such as an encounter with a prostitute, or picking a hopeless fight with his dormitory roommate. He is on a hard downward spiral and he's taking us with him. That's the trajectory here. According to Wikipedia, The Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies since its publication in 1951, and is still moving 250,000 a year. Amazing. So it is off its peaks but still widely read. I'm surprised by that, honestly, because it's often dated, especially in its treatment of women and girls. But Holden Caulfield remained compelling on a recent visit, if more cringeworthy more often than I remembered, and it's still attracting new readers too, so it must be doing something right. P.S. When are we going to see the posthumous Salinger manuscripts? Come on lawyers, we're counting on you.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Close-Up (1990)

Nema-ye Nazdik, Iran, 98 minutes
Director/writer/editor: Abbas Kiarostami
Photography: Ali Reza Zarrindast
Cast: Abbas Kiarostami, Hossain Sabzian, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abolfazi Ahankhah, Mehrdad Ahankhah, Monoochehr Ahankhah, Mahrokh Akankhah, Hossain Farazmand, Hooshang Shamaei, Mohammad Ali Barrati, Davood Goodarzi, Haj Ali Reza Ahmadi

I debated about whether or not I should classify this critical favorite by Iranian director, writer, and editor Abbas Kiarostami as a documentary. Wikipedia calls it "docufiction," which is reasonably close to "docudrama," my first inclination. It's based on true events, with real people from the story, but the scenes are mostly (or sometimes) reenactments, cunningly devised to make points about truth and reality. Then I noticed that in the titles Kiarostami credits himself for "screenplay." Somehow, in my mind, that settled it. A screenplay signals fiction for me, whereas a simple "written by" might have still kept it plausibly in play as a documentary. It's a shady line.

And it doesn't help that the documentaries ranking highest on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (and its companion 21st-century version as well) already tend to be unusual versions of the mundane fact-based form we usually think of, even operating at highest levels (say, Frederick Wiseman). You might even want to rule them out altogether for various formal infractions. I mean, look: Man With a Movie Camera (too evangelizing), Shoah (too long), The Gleaners and I (too personal), Tie Xi Qu (also too long), and now Close-Up, which I am tentatively calling too meta or postmodern to be a documentary.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"Shiloh" (1982)

Read story by Bobbie Ann Mason online.

Bobbie Ann Mason reads like another writer in the second half of the 20th century who was influenced by Raymond Carver. She does with her native Western Kentucky much as Carver did with his native Pacific Northwest. "Shiloh" is about the end of the marriage of Leroy and Norma Jean. It's filled with poignant detail and the routines of busy lives attempting not to deal with important issues. Leroy, a long-haul trucker, has recently been laid up by a serious accident on the job. Now he is afraid to drive again, but he doesn't know how to be useful. He takes up an assortment of hobbies while he convalesces, and eventually decides he wants to build a log cabin by hand for his family, almost as if that's just another hobby. Norma Jean is having none of it. She treats him as if he is going through a phase—isn't he? Her mother, Mabel, also thinks it's a ridiculous idea. She was raised in a log cabin. "It's no picnic, let me tell you," she says, trying to steer him away from the idea. Norma Jean works at the cosmetics counter in a drugstore, and spends a lot of her time exercising, trying to tone her arms. Leroy and Norma Jean had a child many years earlier who died of crib death, and no children since. Mabel wants them to visit the Shiloh battlefield nearby. Mabel went there for her honeymoon and perhaps she thinks it will do their marriage good. They finally go there for a heavily freighted and symbolic visit, the time and place Norma Jean chooses to tell Leroy she is planning to leave him. In this civil war, Leroy represents the union, and Norma Jean is seceding. Neither character is unsympathetic, though both have annoying points. The early '80s is about the time divorce was slipping into widespread acceptance, starting to become just what people did, the way staying together used to be. It's a sad scene. Marriages become the mass victims the way the soldiers were at Shiloh. There are no tears or recriminations when Norma Jean makes her announcement there. There's only a depressing sense of finality—depressing, but not consuming, because life goes on. It's too soon to want for death as the way out. There's little sense anyone in this story has changed or will change by the end. Just sad resignation, squaring shoulders, and forward into the future. It's how we live now, still.

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Beguiled (2017)

The latest from director and screenwriter Sofia Coppola won her a Best Director prize at this year's Cannes. It's a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name directed by Don Siegel—or, at least, it's based on the same literary property, the 1966 novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan. I don't know the novel, or the '71 movie, but obviously this is focused more on the women's point of view. It's a spooky Southern gothic by all the signals, or wants to be, a period piece set in Civil War Virginia full of hysterical women and violent men. I was never strongly persuaded by the story about a wounded Yankee soldier behind enemy lines. He may or may not be deserting from the war, but anyway he is injured and comes to find himself in the care of the seven Southern women and girls left eking out a life (and education) at Martha Farnsworth's boarding school for girls. It's 1864 and the fog of war is banked thick—those still at the school have lost people, or everyone. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is a no-nonsense schoolmarm and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is the last teacher left. For some reason, they don't want to turn the wounded soldier over to their own. They treat his wounds and keep him out of sight. The two single women and five adolescent girls deliver random charges of undirected sexual energy, especially with a handsome, dashing, and vulnerable soldier in the house. They are all drawn to Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in many different ways. Elle Fanning is a sexualized adolescent with a powerful crush and Oona Laurence is an endearingly sincere botany nerd. Miss Farnsworth and Edwina have their own histories and feelings about the situation. Inevitably there's some Virgin Suicides chemistry in the many scenes with the girls in groups, and in the strange group psychologies too, as strained through Tennessee Williams. The presence alone of a man among these women and girls works old-fashioned alchemy on them—they dress up a little more, sneak into the room where he rests to visit, each with her own agenda, and nervous jealous spats erupt among them. McBurney is hard to read, an Irishman recently come to America, and a substitute who accepted money to take the place of a Northerner in the war. He may or may not be a rogue, but he's certainly a man alone with women with nothing to do besides rest, recuperate, and study. He appears to have no particular loyalty, in love or war. Things in The Beguiled are generally going in one direction and then with a single incident suddenly shift to another, opening the picture and momentarily promising to take it to unexpected places. But then it shifts smoothly back to less surprising precincts. That could be a problem with the novel. Or it could be my problem with Tennessee Williams. The performances are hothouse great, with lots of skillful ensemble pieces, but I came away a little underwhelmed. I'm scoring The Beguiled as more of a miss.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Angle of Repose (1971)

Wallace Stegner's novel has a structurally complicated point of view, arcing across time and generations. I wanted to connect that with the title, but as a term "angle of repose" is less about a viewpoint and more about geology and landscape engineering. That's appropriate because the husband of the main character is a self-educated mining engineer (who also works on diversionary waterway construction, such as dams) in the 19th-century American West. The star of this show is Susan Burling Ward, who is based on the historical figure Mary Hallock Foote, an illustrator and writer who followed her civil engineering husband around the West, and sent back reports to the East. This is all news to me. The narrator is the grandson of this couple. He is also a 58-year-old academic historian confined to a wheelchair because he has lost a leg. He is working on a project based on his grandmother's letters. What I like most about Angle of Repose is the way it spins out stories of the Old West. Its particular angle of view is the self-made American man—one thing that eventually holds back Oliver Ward is that he has no formal college education—making things out of the land with his hands. Susan is even more resourceful in her way, especially working within the limitations of being a woman and an artist. The novel was published in 1971, and it's evident in some of the modern-day passages that "Women's Liberation" was still strange and unfamiliar. I didn't get the sense that Susan's role as the main character was in any way intended as a model of feminism—if anything, it's pulling in the other direction, locating her strength in her strong sense of tradition. Stegner might get a little cute with some of his conceits. The narrator is not just researching a book, but this is that book. Toward the end we see the narrator, Lyman Ward, musing over how he will title it "Angle of Repose." Ayup. It ends on a note out of a horror movie, which is as out of place as it is effectively done. I think on the whole I could have done without it. Without a doubt the best parts of the book, and most of it, take place in the distant past. The specificity of the places—Leadville, Mexico, Idaho—is vivid and wonderful. At the same time, the modern mind intrudes often on these scenes, as we are led down the garden path by the narrator into penetrating the interior lives of heroic and larger-than-life characters. The frame doesn't work, but the canvas is pretty impressive.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)

I still wasn't playing CDs on computers when I bought this album new, when Prince was still going by the glyph symbol. So it took me a while to catch up with what a multimedia clusterfuck it can be. Pro tip: when prompted, choose "play audio CD" on the simplest platform available. Do not attempt to rip. Do not attempt to engage the enhanced features. Even this early in the internet era (no doubt symptomatic of his battles with Warner Bros.), Prince was asserting his copyright privileges with unrelenting aggression. The enhanced features here create a computer environment I could only get rid of via complete reboot. I suppose that could be Windows 10. But Prince never really changed that stance, which was the main reason there were so few videos to share on social media on the occasion of his death. For me, the ritual sharing of individual song videos is one of the few things I like about the internet's response to celebrity death. At any rate, there are certainly other caveats to make about this album—it rarely rises an inch or two above the absolute floor of Prince product. Recall, however, that even Prince product reliably delivers various points of pleasure, not just mere professionalism. If he is barely capable of partying like it's 1999, whose fault is that anyway? You can always go back to 1982. This is more smooth and slick, attempting (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to be radio-friendly, and with the usual interesting motley of guest appearances: Chuck D, Eve, Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco, and Maceo Parker. There's also a nice cover of a great Sheryl Crow song, "Everyday Is a Winding Road," which is not the track on which Crow appears. There are a couple of hidden tracks too, though one is an ad, and generally they are problematic as well in terms of functionality. Predictably, the one that is not an ad, "Prettyman," is worth the bullshit to get to. It's just a matter of waiting. From the cover art, Prince appears to be signaling a willingness to embrace the color purple again, after The Gold Experience of four years earlier; I consider that a neutral factor overall. This may be the first Prince album I know yet with no standout tracks whatsoever (well, maybe "The Sun, the Moon and Stars" makes me go a little weak), yet I played it often when it was new and have never minded running it one more time in recent days—except for the functionality issues. And meanwhile commanding prices that start at $32 for this crappy multimedia product, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (wonderful title, by the way) really can't get to streaming venues and/or a thoroughly rethought remastering soon enough. Come on, lawyers. Get on it.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

"Marriage a la Mode" (1921)

Read story by Katherine Mansfield online.

Katherine Mansfield is a writer originally from New Zealand, a short story specialist later associated with D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, and a distinctly modern voice. This story, in which no one has pie with ice cream, probes at the dynamics of a marriage growing stale with familiarity and age. William and Isabel are approaching middle age, with two children in grade school. He commutes to a job in London that is demanding, with long hours. She has recently found new friends who are shallow and foolish but fashionable. She finds herself growing apart from him. The story turns on epiphanies occasioned by William traveling to spend a day and a night with his family and Isabel's new friends. The couple has recently moved to a larger house in the countryside, which Isabel wanted. For William it has made his commute even harder, his time with his family even more limited. He is too busy with his work to give much thought to gifts for his children on his visits, and he feels guilty. When he arrives at the station, Isabel is there to get him with her friends. On the one hand he is happy she has come for him, but on the other, she is wrapped in the armor of her friends' posturing. They are a familiar type of 20th-century European upper-class wastrel, with no concerns for anyone and happy to use all who will let them. They make charming empty statements and mostly ignore William, which goes on for most of his visit. He's so disturbed by the way he's treated that he composes a letter to Isabel on the train back to the city—a searching, heartfelt letter about the state of their marriage. When it arrives, Isabel is with her friends and reads it aloud to them. "A love-letter!" they exclaim. "But how divine!" We never hear much of the letter verbatim, we just imagine what's in it based on their reactions. While her friends are hilarious, Isabel has a strange response. At first she makes fun of it with the others—she reads it to them, after all. But then she has an attack of remorse, takes the letter to her bedroom, and reflects on its gravity. She knows it's serious. She knows she must make a decision. She intends to make the recommitment to her husband. But then her friends call to her and she quickly readjusts again. She can write to William later. "And, laughing in the new way, she ran down the stairs." I love that "the new way."

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

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Law & Order, s2 (1991-1992)

If the first season of Law & Order was a little better than I expected, the second season was a little worse. I'm sure part of it is that these episodes are so well-worn now, replayed over and over in the earliest flush that dominated the rerun circuit for many years—the way I've seen most of Law & Order. They are still working to make the pieces fit in the second season. In the first episode, Max Greevey (George Dzundza) is summarily assassinated and it's hello to Phil Cerreta (Paul Sorvino) as the new partner for Mike Logan (Chris Noth). It's also hello to Dr. Elizabeth Olivet (Carolyn McCormick), who works with Logan on his grief issues and then sticks around for another 86 episodes as the resident forensic psychology consultant. There's still a lot of churn going on, casting adjustments and other trial and error shots (prosecutors Ben Stone and Paul Robinette have a vicious tennis rivalry in one episode), but the main departure from what I expected is that the themes have shifted from the explosively topical and more into clockwork studies of the procedures, especially on the legal side. Intricacies of plea bargaining and other deal-making to work the system to mutual advantages (among at least prosecutors, defendants, victims, and the press) are often on display in the episodes of this season. For the district attorney's office, the defense attorneys, and often the criminals too, the wheeling and dealing is all part of business as usual.

Again, using New York on location as the setting is pitch-perfect—so much rich character from so many different directions. Also again—and true for most of the run of the series—the incidental casting can make for entertaining rounds of face spotting, as you never know who will show up. Some people I saw (all making good): Lewis Black as a pornographer, Allison Janney, Jerry Orbach as a defense attorney, Sam Rockwell, and Eli Wallach. Both of George Costanza's parents show up, in separate episodes (Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris). Other parts of the formula are starting to lock in. The blackout-like sequence before the titles, usually the reveal of a crime, usually ending on a snappy hard-bitten line, e.g., "Education. It's a wonderful thing." Cragen (Dann Florek), who supervises the detectives, gets lots of great lines too. Or the ritual arrest and reading of the rights at the midway point, followed by an arraignment after the break. The plots are starting to get more twisty. You're not always sure where a case is headed, or what crime the trial will end up being about, as investigations develop. They're already unafraid to go to some wild places. The topicality may be toned down, but it's still there, if not yet as crisp and sharp as it will become—or was, in the first season. The show is still in a process of becoming in this season, and has a ways to go. It's still solid TV with its ultimate strengths already self-evident: classic police procedural extending the form by wedding it to its natural mate, the courtroom drama. This season includes the first episode I ever happened to see, or the last 20 minutes of it (I had tuned in way late, flipping around the channels). It's about a serial killer (creepy James Rebhorn), with Barbara Barrie, Allen Garfield, and an outstanding performance by Rutanya Alda (The Deer Hunter, Mommie Dearest). The plot is a bit convoluted, I can see now, but with a typically riveting way of plodding forward. Strewn with great lines, as they all are. Ben Stone: "He wants a slap on the wrist." Adam Schiff (Steven Hill, yet another of the show's trademark players): "So start slapping."

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Catch-22 (1961)

Catch-22 remains significant, important, and brilliant, though it's all reducible to variations on the paradoxical idea signified by the title. Interesting to find out that it was written first as "Catch-18," but then was scheduled for publication in the same year as Mila 18 by Leon Uris, which necessitated the change. For a while Heller was determined on 14 but editor Robert Gottlieb said it had to be 22 (one wonders how these conversations went)—22 seems so right now it's hard to believe it was ever anything else. The concept is all spelled out early. You have to be crazy to fly bombing missions in a war because people try to kill you. But asking out of the duty is the proof you're sane. That's the catch—Catch-22. Therefore you have to fly them. You can actually look up the term now in the dictionary. It's part of the language: "a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem." Catch-22 is sometimes described as an antiwar novel, but it's actually closer to anti-bureaucracy, sawing away on the kind of witty paradoxes that also populate Oscar Wilde narratives: "Fortunately, just when things were blackest, the war broke out.... The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.... [Colonel Cathcart] was someone in the know who was always striving pathetically to find out what was going on." And so forth. I remember it as delightful the first time but the totality produces something more of a slog on later visits. It's very funny in places. It's very horrifying in others. Sometimes, as when the ambitious mess officer Milo Minderbinder contracts with the Germans to bomb the American base where they are all stationed, I'm really not sure which is which and it's unsettling. There are dozens of characters coming and going, but they are all working through the same dense fog of comic paradox, playing out the roles assigned to them. There are some great sendups of the vainglories of military rankings. Though it's set in "the good war" it seems much more suited to the '60s, heralding them even in some ways, published in 1961. I think it could have been shorter, mostly for my own convenience, because I also think it could have been longer, and I really wouldn't know where to cut or add. In its capering way it's somehow a certain model for postmodern war novels, transcending earlier and more conventional work from James Jones, Norman Mailer, and the rest with a fractured nesting narrative strategy that makes it vivid and absurd to the point of alienated. But the resulting lack of narrative momentum also works against it a little, at least in terms of taking it on as a whole. You only need to read it once. Then you can go back for pages or chapters at a time. By the fragments, it's one of the best we ever got.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

"The Magic Barrel" (1954)

Read story by Bernard Malamud online.

Bernard Malamud was taught in my high school. I thought pretty well of him then, but I wasn't sure what to expect after so long. I was happy to find this story engaging and charming. The protagonist (perhaps) is Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student who is about to graduate and be ordained. Told he could get a bigger congregation if he were married, he turns to a matchmaker whose ad he found in the classifieds, Pinye Salzmann, who is the other possible protagonist. Salzmann speaks with a strong and endearing Yiddish accent. They quickly develop a fraught relationship. No candidate that Salzmann turns up is good enough for Finkle. He rejects a widow, a woman in her 30s, for her age (Finkle is 27), and another woman whose father is likely coercing her. Salzmann shares his common-sense wisdom about love and relationships, but Finkle is wary and rejecting. Finally, in exasperation, Salzmann shows up one more time with an envelope of photographs. But the tension between them is so great that Finkle doesn't even look at them for weeks. This is probably a good place to register the spoiler warning. I really don't take Malamud's story as built for the sake of a surprise twist. It's not that kind of story. Nevertheless, there is a twist here. Salzmann has accidentally included a picture of his daughter, whom, he will later tell Finkle, "is a wild one—wild, without shame.... She is not for you." But, of course, that is the woman Finkle wants. He already seems half in love with her from the photo, more interested by magnitudes than anyone that has been offered to him yet. It sets up a wonderful last scene where Finkle meets the young woman. In his first look at her he sees that her eyes are "filled with desperate innocence." Meanwhile, "Around the corner, Salzmann, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead." The tables are turned in interesting ways. On balance, I take it as a comedy. Finkle has hired a matchmaker and ignored everything he told him. So he goes to his doom. Thus has it ever been, thus shall it ever be. We last see Finkle approaching her "with flowers outthrust." Good one.

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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

"The Call of Cthulhu" (1928)

Read story by H.P. Lovecraft online.

H.P. Lovecraft's signature story takes a familiar route for horror fiction, making it about an investigation and certain key documents. Like Dracula or Jekyll & Hyde, it practically gets carried away with the conceit, creating busy thickets of circumstances. During a period of time in late March and early April, an artist is troubled by nightmare visions accompanied by strange hieroglyphics he doesn't understand but transcribes onto a clay bas-relief (because it was convenient?). He then takes this sculpture to a prominent professor of Semitic languages at Brown University, who is also his uncle. Uncle George recognizes the language and images from previous disturbing events in his life, which are then detailed. He also conducts a kind of survey and discovers that many people, especially artists, had similar dreams during that time. Slowly, the consistencies come into focus: the image of a hideous writhing head, the names "Cthulhu" and "R'lyeh," and a haunting phrase all the investigators interpret as "In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming." All the problems and pleasures I've had with Lovecraft are well represented here. The language is often stultifying, and the writing strategy hews uncomfortably close to word salad, relying on batteries of fantastic adjectives. Too often it tells rather than shows—even the showing is often a tiresome matter of telling too much detail. And the plotting is way too busy, a more general problem with horror of the past. Yet there's no denying a palpable sense of mounting dread oozing off this. Cthulhu is alien by definition—he is not of this planet, and never has been, though he has been connected with it longer than humanity itself has existed. It is not evil so much as infinitely cold and uncaring about humanity. He views us the way we view vermin. He can't quite stamp us out, but he's trying, and he's very powerful. It's hard to imagine what people thought when they encountered this story in a Weird Tales magazine in 1928. Frankly, it's hard for me to imagine that many even finished it. It's rather long, built out of big fat paragraphs with ponderous long sentences. It seems to do most of its work after the story is read and put away. It stretches the brain with its concepts of time. The hideous visage of Cthulhu is a bit like scenes from the 1933 King Kong movie, overdetermined yet vivid enough and redundant enough to get by the disbelief filters. Lovecraft's universe is vast, cold, and mostly empty, which isn't far from reality. The fact that there's a giant writhing octopus-head that means us no particular good lurking about the galaxies is unnerving in surprisingly penetrating ways.

The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Emancipation (1996)

I was never as offended as others by Prince's insistence on equating the contract difficulties he had at Warner Bros. with slavery, as it was literally a battle to control masters and Prince was the black person in the equation doing the work. But I understood the point. I thought it was a little strange to start his formal manumission with two albums totaling some six hours of music on six CDs, with very few singles emerging from the assault. File under "ambitious," after four albums in the previous two years. In other words, Emancipation, his first album out from under the major label, is typical Prince product. Unfortunately, I considered that a small problem at the time. Like a science experiment, I was saturated. I could not absorb any more. I never even bothered to buy the follow-on two years later (at least he gave us those two years), Crystal Ball, and thus began my slow drift from following him closely, though I picked up several more of his new albums over the years. So it was good to give myself the chance to return to Emancipation at last and finish the job of absorbing. In 1996 I had stalled on the first CD and the one song that distinguished itself (after the covers), "White Mansion," which put me in a Minnesota mood with a high lonesome sound. The other two discs, no surprise, are equal to the first or better, affording hours rewarded with the solid good stuff. He's still attempting to accommodate latter-day developments such as a couple of spotlights for rapper Scrap D. There's also a rave / techno workup, "The Human Body." And more worthwhile-to-special tracks have distinguished all through: nice guitar play in "We Gets Up," a disclosure of his favorite cereal in "Joint 2 Joint," name-checking for everyone in "Style," and of course lots of good grooves.

Now about those covers, which have always stood out to me most on casual listens. I take that as partly a matter of my attention to the radio over the years, though maybe it says something about the original material. But like many I'm often fascinated by covers, attempting to divine something about the two artists involved, only one by deliberate choice. They are declarations of identity in mysterious ways. Emancipation has four, two each on the first and third CDs, one each per CD of a soul classic and a ballad made famous by a woman: the Stylistics' "Betcha by Golly Wow," Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" (written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin), the Delfonics' "La-La-Means I Love You," and Joan Osborne's "One of Us" (written by Eric Bazilian). All titles rendered in Prince, natch. As always the image is of Prince alone in the studio, working this stuff out. The soul songs are impossibly sweet, even in their original forms, and the ballads are impossibly vulnerable. He's a little better I think at accessing the pith of the ballads—he's not afraid they might be maudlin or trite, and thus he makes sure they are not. He's notably brave taking on "One of Us," which had been a big hit earlier that year, much disdained in many quarters. I have always loved it but often still feel a little constrained to keep my mouth shut. I hate to use the term guilty pleasure. But Prince really brings it for this one, underlining the themes (yes, including "slave" for "slob") even as he makes it all soar. A liberating moment for me for sure. There are many others in this generous set too.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

USA, 123 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, Dorothy M. Johnson
Photography: William H. Clothier
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Editor: Otho Lovering
Cast: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Andy Devine, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen, Ken Murray, Woody Strode, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, John Carradine

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," Gene Pitney's #4 hit song in 1962 written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, has only a little more to do with this movie than Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day," a #1 in 1957, had to do with another famous John Ford movie, The Searchers. It's possible the Pitney song was originally commissioned for the movie, given how close the release dates are, and certainly it is based on the same 1953 story by Dorothy M. Johnson. But the song never appears in the movie. Nevertheless, the chorus rampages through my head every time I even think of the title.

It's easy to see why director John Ford would have rejected the little pop confection, but in many ways his movie is a kind of pop confection itself (albeit somewhat dulled by the soundstages and the black and white treatment, which were due to budget constraints). It's packed with stars new and old—John Wayne and James Stewart go back to the days of silent films, while Strother Martin, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and Lee Van Cleef look forward to visions of the future by way of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and TV. And The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a kind of clinic in the art of engrossing narrative. I've seen it several times and if I'm rarely enthusiastic about seeing it again—the Pitney song pounds through my head at the thought, a certain deadly earworm—all resistance falls away once the story begins to unfold.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"To Build a Fire" (1908)

Read story by Jack London online.

One of the happy surprises I've had on this short story project is discovering how much I like the nature stories, "man vs. nature," as the English teachers explained it. This is one of the best yet. It's among London's best-known and most anthologized stories, but it's not the first one he wrote under the title. There's also a 1902 version, which I don't know. The premise is simple. The setting is the far north regions of North America. We never learn the name of our hero, who is trekking with a dog across wilderness to reach a camp by day's end. It's extremely cold—50 below zero F. or colder, our hero speculates, but at one point the third-person narrator who mostly stays inside the head of our guy steps out for a few beats to let us know it is actually 75 below. That's cold. The hiker keeps his lunch under his layers of clothes next to his chest and belly to keep it from freezing hard. He thinks occasionally about an old-timer who warned him never to travel alone in weather colder than 50 below. He knows he is taking a risk but feels confident. He has experience and knows the dangers. But this is not a story that ends well, and the power of it is all descriptive and rhythmic. London sets out all the basic elements and shows how the situation can naturally if unexpectedly grow worse. Then he shows what happens next. The last few pages are vivid and even hard to read. I had to take a couple of breaks to compose myself. Jim Thompson has written in similarly strong ways about claustrophobic experience. Here it is nearly unimaginable cold. I have experienced near 40-below temperatures, and certainly know well the kinds of things that happen at 20 below. Seeing the man attempting to deal with a drenched leg as the result of stepping in a hidden pool (a natural feature in the region) is extraordinarily intense, especially the more you see how skilled the man is even as he steadily loses to the elements. I know from The Call of the Wild how good London can be with animals, and the dog here and its relationship with the man are nearly equal to that again. The story is sustained entirely by description and long, blocky paragraphs (which you know I have to love), with no relief from dialogue. Yet it sets and maintains a powerful rhythm, as it moves from the start, with the man's thoughts of his lunch and getting back to camp that evening, to the awful events that descend on him, one at a time.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

Huzzah, the summer blockbuster season is upon us. Wonder Woman was already getting good word of mouth the week it was released so I went. Partly the excitement is a matter of the woman-friendly nature of the project: starring a woman (Gal Gadot), directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins), about a woman superhero raised by a tribe of women. It's a point of honor to take daughters, some screenings are for women only, and so on. Get into the heart of the movie, taken for what it is, and it's not bad. In fact, as a flailing DC effort in the Zach Snyder era of the superhero epoch, you could even say it's remarkably good. I liked the character of Diana, a goddess (or at least half-goddess, technically speaking). She's a beguiling mix of the naïve, the uprightly moral, and the beautiful—Gal Gadot is a glowing screen presence happily up to carrying the whole thing. This one is set in World War I times, which is a bit of a head scratcher. I presume things like that will be explained with the inevitable sequels (which inevitably will have to refer to her as "Wonder Woman," though they get away with not doing so here, a nice point). The Amazons back on the mysterious island of Themiscyra where Diana was raised are virulently antiwar, and World War I is famous for being the worst war ever, so there's that. One of the picture's highlights is an amazing race across No Man's Land. Chris Pine is handsome Steve Trevor, with a band of brigands in tow (Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock). Diana doesn't take long to establish herself as the resident badass among them, and these macho dogs all seem to accept it. Gender-fraught tensions percolate along more explicitly in the action. Because of her upbringing, Diana associates men with violence and war and only sides with the British because she happens to like Steve. It could have been a German as well. After all, this was the war with no good guys. At two and a half hours, there's no stinting of the big battle scenes and other special effects. There's a decent balance of motivations and fighting, though the last third turns hard toward the latter. That's why we're here, right?