Monday, January 30, 2017

Gimme Danger (2016)

All Stooges fans will want to report immediately to this Jim Jarmusch documentary. Iggy Pop (nee James Osterberg, and "Jim" to a few of his old friends here) is featured prominently, of course, but there's very little about his solo career—David Bowie is just a glancing figure around the time of Raw Power, for example. Gimme Danger may contain a key clip from Velvet Goldmine, but it's a Stooges movie. And it's not bad. It's a reasonably thorough-going history of the band, going back to their origins as the Psychedelic Stooges and even before. It plumbs all their musical sources and influences—Harry Partsch was important, along with the Velvet Underground, John Coltrane, and others. Many of the people associated with the band have passed on now, some even while the film was being made: Dave Alexander, the original bassist, in 1975, both Asheton brothers more recently, and Steve Mackay too. Gimme Danger thus often feels like an elegy, and sad. I was hoping for more uninterrupted music, but even the steady nervous barrage of clips and images in and around talking heads interviews was often satisfying. I love these people and am interested in all they have to say. I had a feeling that the agenda of director and writer Jarmusch included making a case for Raw Power as the pinnacle. That's an argument I'm open to, though I'm more of a Fun House partisan. And I thought the shrift for Fun House was a little short overall here. But the famous scene of Iggy stair-stepping across the hands of fans at a show from that era is included, an iconic moment I always enjoy seeing. There's a long leap in the picture from Kill City, which came out circa '77, to the Stooges reunification (a term Iggy prefers to "reunion") in 2003 at Coachella. Fun fact you might know already: razor-sharp guitar player and producer James Williamson, Iggy's late Stooges collaborator, went on to make a career for himself in software in Silicon Valley after leaving the band. Stepping in for Ron Asheton at reunification appearances after Ron died in 2009 involved Williamson picking up a guitar for the first time in decades. This movie is full of great anecdotes, great pictures, and great music. It may possibly only be for Iggy and/or Stooges fans, but I liked it a lot in spite of my grumbling. I'm only grumbling because I want more. Do things like this ever come in "long" versions, with, like, extended concert footage? Fingers crossed for the DVD.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"Water Liars" (1978)

Read story by Barry Hannah online.

When a story is as short as this one by Barry Hannah—four pages—it's going to rely on various tricks to get over. There's not really time or space to develop a narrative or characters. "Water Liars" has a ringing, charming, and distinctive voice. The first sentence: "When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another." The sing-songy rhyming foreshadows and signifies the first-person narrator, who is impoverished and vaguely dissolute. His story here is that he is at loose ends since he and his wife belatedly exchanged sexual histories. He is unexplainably disturbed to realize his wife had lovers, affairs, and sex before she knew him. He knows it's indefensible, makes no rational sense—of course she knew others before she knew him. So that's the narrator. The "water liars" of the title, the old men on the pier who swap exaggerations, appear to be something like his analogue, an externalization of his interior. This looks even more likely when one of the old men tells a story that bothers everyone. "He'd told the truth," Hannah explains it. They are angry with him and want him to leave. Along the way in this very short story, the language is compact and glistening, broken out into short sections separated by line breaks, just a few paragraphs each. So the narrative is thus also shattered, literally and figuratively. It's a pretty good trick, making it a pleasure (if baffling) to read, but for me I think it's a little too tricky. It's more like a poem, an assembly of images within language that doesn't exactly yield up meaning, not least because it yields it up so many wanton ways, not one of them direct. The narrator is not likable, and the old guys feel more like talking symbols than people. A Greek chorus of some kind—Hannah is at pains to note the discontinuities of the people on the pier. "The lineup is always different, because they're always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc." (which is only the second sentence in the story). It's probably a good classroom exercise, short enough that many will likely read it, and full of a hundred ambiguities you could chew over in the space of an hour. As much as I like the language—and the brevity—this story leaves me a little cold. It's too smug, and it's too hard. I suspect in my heart there's actually very little here.

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

Airships by Barry Hannah

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Silver Bullets (2015)

My association with the Chills, a New Zealand band headed by Martin Phillips since the '80s, is mainly limited to two albums from the early '90s, Submarine Bells and Soft Bomb (one wonders what the recurring SB initials are about ... other Chills releases include Sunburnt, Somewhere Beautiful, Sketch Book, Secret Box, and Stand By). Submarine Bells and Soft Bomb are not only great albums but also filled with luminous pop songs of such certain purity they can be broken off, in mix tapes and such, and lived with individually, for years in some cases (their greatest hit by my lights is still the deeply insular "Song for Randy Newman, Etc.," a kind of theme song for living). Phillips is the only constant across the years of the Chills and he has always been the chief songwriter. Sometimes I suspect the band name has something to do with the similarity with his last name. All songs on Silver Bullets are by him, as usual, and along with many other of these recent surprise returns (David Bowie and the Sonics come to mind right away, and even the Rolling Stones might be getting in on it now), the consistent high quality is the most pleasant part of the surprise. Phillips was still up to moderate rock 'n' roll heroics in Submarine Bells—he's the guitar player, after all—but he was already tending toward primacies of mood and atmosphere. Soft Bomb was more of that and Silver Bullets, even across a gap of over 20 years, is even more. The songs on Silver Bullets shimmer and glow, throwing up fragments of lyrics that clarify through repetition, yet remain stubbornly enigmatic: "warm waves," "silver bullets," "America says hello," "when the poor can reach the moon," "aurora corona," "tomboy," "molten gold." The song about the poor and the moon runs over eight minutes, which anyone would have to call long, with a kind of prog structure that shifts from theme to theme. Most of the songs are a little long (or short) for pure pop music, in other words, but then that's not exactly what Phillips is doing any more. This is probably for fans only, but all fans will want to hear it.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002)

Tiexi Qu, China / Netherlands, 551 minutes, documentary
Director / photography: Bing Wang
Editors: Bing Wang, Adam Kerdy

I'm going to go slightly off the tracks here first, because I think the basic fact of stupefying long movies is seeing them at all. I'm not even talking about the commercial availability of Tie Xi Qu, which is another matter entirely. This is a nine-hour movie. It doesn't matter what it's about. You have to figure out a plan for seeing it. In the current TV glut, viewers at least enjoy the utility of the formal breaks of episodes. A season of The Walking Dead, say, may last 688 minutes (16 episodes of 43 minutes each). Yet somehow that seems easier to take on than, for example, Satantango, even though The Walking Dead season in its totality is some four hours longer. A lot of TV show time is taken up with specific familiar rhythms: "previously on" recaps, formal titles and theme songs, closing credits, and usually mini-climaxes engineered every 12 to 15 minutes.

Movies like Tie Xi Qu are in a different category. You see it in the resistance everyone instinctively has to them as "too long," even by people who will watch hours on end of sports and TV shows on a daily basis. I would count Lav Diaz's Melancholia (450 minutes), the aforementioned Satantango (420 minutes), and above all Shoah (566 minutes)—as well as puny by comparison Frederick Wiseman titles such as Near Death (358 minutes) and Belfast, Maine (245 minutes)—as movies that form more of a basis for comparing and judging Tie Xi Qu. They work better in terms of the experience of seeing the film than categories such as documentaries, or modern Chinese and/or industrial history. Other comparable movies might include Dekalog (572 minutes), The Human Condition (579 minutes), The Lord of the Rings extended versions (659 minutes), and Berlin Alexanderplatz (930 minutes). But they also just bring more categorizing problems. The first three are arguably compilations of separate films, and Berlin Alexanderplatz is much closer to a typical TV season than a narrative film, except maybe for the three-hour finale. Of course, there are many more of these movies (start with Out 1 and/or more Wiseman titles), but these are the ones I've seen.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

"The Ledge" (1959)

Read story by Lawrence Sargent Hall online.

This story is a classic in the vein of "man vs. nature," done extraordinarily well. It also helped me identify a little better the peculiar rhythms of so many stories. All fiction attempts to start strong, with memorable or intriguing first sentences and paragraphs, but they also have serious set-up to get out of the way as well. Novels are one thing but short stories have even less space for that. Thus, as often happens, "The Ledge" starts out slow, as it lays out the premise. It's Christmas, and an experienced fisherman is taking his son and nephew out to hunt sea ducks. The setting appears to be New England though it's never specified. They are hunting in a place that is dependent on dispositions of the tide. It's dangerous, and the fisherman's wife wishes he wouldn't go, but he is experienced and the boys want to do it. They have new guns they got as gifts for Christmas. The fisherman is gruff, short-tempered, and harsh with others when he is under stress. We see this when he realizes he has forgotten to bring his tobacco with him on the day-long venture. In fact, he's not that likable, except that with the boys you sense some depth of commitment. All this in the first third or half of the story makes it slow going. Yet then, when they are suddenly in danger, all the explanation starts to pay off. We grasp the emotional realities as they suddenly unfold in all their complexity—and the physical realities too, of course. There are plainly manipulative aspects going on here. It's Christmas, it's generational male bonding, there's even a sad aging dog. But they have been introduced so deliberately and so slyly we hardly question them. They just work on us, and are there when it becomes a riveting passage of high drama. The fact that it's Christmas is mentioned in the first sentence, along with a lot of boring baggage about Christmas and the fisherman's family and the fisherman—all useful information for later, it turns out. The dog turns up as they are setting out on the hunt, a minor element of warmth and then mostly forgotten. Fiction's problem of the tedious set-up—"you have to stick with it a little bit even if it seems slow"—reminds me a little of the bromide about music that you "have to listen to it a few times" (never mind re: movies). There are very good stories, short and long, that can be instantly memorable (especially with novels, where there is more room to work in the set-up), but it doesn't happen often. Once we realize a story's greatness we may forget the slow going in the beginning. This could be a matter of personal taste. Hall's language is always clean and straightforward, and writers like that can be more captivating for me from the start. This is a good one.

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

Monday, January 23, 2017

La La Land (2016)

Movie musicals in one of the classic Hollywood modes are so rare nowadays, and at the same so daunting—you have to dedicate time to wondering if each one can really be any good—they almost always give me pause when they do come along (say, Chicago, Sweeney Todd, or the very odd Les Miserables). What's more, La La Land is also an obvious piece of Oscar bait, an attempt to enter the great Los Angeles movie sweepstakes (with The Big Sleep, Sunset Blvd., Chinatown, Blade Runner, Short Cuts, L.A. Confidential, Mulholland Dr., etc., etc.), and by the way distinctly reminiscent of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You. That could be because I've been looking at lesser Woody Allen movies lately, but Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are also actually singing and dancing here, just like Edward Norton, Tim Roth, Natalie Portman, Alan Alda, etc. It's classic musical fare on its face, with a winsome story about two crazy mixed-up kids trying to make it in the heartless world of showbiz. He is a jazzbo purist (Gosling), she is a struggling writer and actor (Stone). They meet sweet, and meet sweet again, always in the vicinity of well-known Los Angeles landmarks. Cue music. Dancers. The opening number is an exuberant stunner, set in a Los Angeles traffic jam, but unlike what I expected from previews, the whole thing turns out to be somewhat less a musical and somewhat more just another modern romantic comedy. There's a promise it will go soaring on wings of musical fantasy, with tasteful stunts and special effects. And while it does manage that a couple times, notably in that first number and also a planetarium scene, its feet too often come back to the ground and too often those feet are clay. It too often retreats to sorting out tiresome relationship troubles in conversation. Could these two maybe after all be just a couple of pretentious young urbanistas at large in Tinseltown? Maybe. I don't know Emma Stone well but she seems almost not up to the role somehow, though she's always appealing. Ryan Gosling was surprising again as I'm learning he often can be—he's very good at that whole disappearing into the reinvention thing that lots of great performers do. However, the chemistry between Gosling and Stone is minimal. Maybe that's the problem. La La Land is directed and written by Damien Chazelle, with a screenplay he's been shopping around all decade. He finally got the chance to make it when Whiplash (which he directed and wrote) hauled in some money and drew attention a couple of years ago. Chazelle also wrote the screenplay for 10 Cloverfield Lane, released earlier this year. They are not movies I like, so maybe I just don't like something about the way he makes movies. But I can't imagine La La Land holding much interest after about March this year. I might be wrong. Maybe it's a classic.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Spoils of Poynton (1896)

For once, my rooting around in all these obscure Henry James novels has paid off. Caveats: Well, first, I'm not sure how obscure The Spoils of Poynton counts as being. I recall it being assigned in an undergraduate class, in a volume that paired it with another short James novel, The Aspern Papers, an interesting tale in its own right (and which might equally have been the assigned reading). I want to say the difference between The Spoils of Poynton and others I've been reading and mildly carping about lately (The Other House, The Tragic Muse, The Reverberator, The Princess Casamassima, The Bostonians) is that James appears to have finally given up his quest for topicality, either with issues of the day or flirtations with genre and/or theater. He's just hammering out a little thing here with all the stuff he likes: European customs (again, it's pretty much all British characters), the appreciation of collecting and collections and all attendant matters of taste, and one Fleda Vetch, who wanders into the action to become Mrs. Gereth's sidekick. The conflict is between Mrs. Gereth and her son Owen, over the furniture and art she has amassed and must now give up, because he is about to marry a woman who insists that it all "goes with the house." Owen inherited the house when his father died (some years ago in the story), contingent upon his marriage, an eventuality that has arrived. It's a great symbol James has struck on here with the furniture and bric-a-brac, better captured I think in his original title, The Old Things. Fleda Vetch is the best part, a wonderful apparition, stepping out of the pages of a Jane Austen novel as the impoverished cousin with exquisite manners and taste and her feet on the ground. The tensions get to a nice fever pitch when it appears Fleda and Owen have fallen in love with each other. I don't like the ending, but that's only because I like these three characters so much: Mrs. Gereth, Owen, and Fleda Vetch. The whole thing is handled with authority, confidence, and humor. It may not be James at his "greatest" but I hazard to say it's James at his best.

"interlocutor" count = 6 / 256 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Minor Heroism" (1974)

Story by Allan Gurganus not available online.

Allan Gurganus's story is dense with weighty significance. It has a subtitle ("Something About My Father"), a dedication (to William Maxwell), and three subsections that are numbered and titled: "1. At War, at Home," "2. My Elder Son," and "3. Addendum." The three sections alternate narrators: two are by the oldest son, Brian, at different time periods, and the middle section is narrated by the father. All this is in service of a story of the midcentury generation gap. The father is a war hero (World War II) who was photographed with Betty Grable and involved in the fire-bombing of Dresden. By contrast, the father's oldest son is gay. It's a lot of fancy footwork for a point that now seems almost trite: the militarist father with a gay son and the father can't stand the shame. In turn, the son hates the father in a deeply conflicted way. I did like the way the second section moved. There was a lot of tiresome set-up work in the first, but maybe it pays off with the second. Part of my problem really is that I never have much sympathy for these fathers, and here I don't think we're even supposed to. The story title itself belittles the father's glories, and Dresden is the giveaway. At the time the story was written and published (five years after Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five), Dresden had become a symbol for the mistakes in the war made by the Allies—or the barbarities, as there are probably people who continue to defend Dresden. When we arrive inside the father's head in the second section, his self-pity and aggrieved tone don't make him any more sympathetic, but it feels authentic. You get a sense of his bewildered confusion about what the world turned into after the war. And Brian is done perhaps as well as anyone of the time could. There is a palpable discomfort with his sexuality, however, with so many clichés of the caustic homosexual queen attached to him. It makes the story itself feel strangely imbued with shame. At this point, the interest for me is more social-historical than anything. I don't know Gurganus at all beyond this, but there's an interesting anecdote about the story. In 1974, Gurganus was studying with John Cheever at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Cheever submitted the story to the New Yorker without Gurganus's knowledge. It was his first published story. It's not exactly Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but nice way to start a career.

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

I've said it before, but I'm really not that much into the fantasy genre, especially when it comes in the form of a movie fitted out for sequels extending into the future beyond the looming Trump administration (which at the moment looks like eternity). J.K. Rowling is the creative force here, coproducing and writing the screenplay, somehow fitting it into her Harry Potter universe. I admired that series from a distance—that is, I read The Philosopher's Stone and recognized I would have loved it as a kid, a need fulfilled for me at the time by Edward Eager, Norton Juster, and science fiction. In the late '90s, I had no need to read further, and full disclosure, I have never seen a Harry Potter movie. And on top of everything I don't like Eddie Redmayne that much either—his choice of roles maybe. He's obviously competent. I checked out Fantastic Beasts during Christmas week at a matinee full of families, hoping that might work some magic. And it did, a little. The movie is cute and generally wholesome and immaculately done. It really wowed a girl sitting near me. In concept it reminded me of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, imagining a world where magic is heavily entwined with political intrigue and power. Not everything here is for kids—there's an X-Men mutants vibe working hard on the edges. Clarke's book, by the way, was published in 2004 but she started it in 1993, four years before the first Harry Potter novel, so all this British publishing magic appears to be a case of serendipity. What Fantastic Beasts reminded me of most was a DC Comics storyline from the '60s, "Dial H for Hero." In this ridiculous series (which has since been revived multiple times, as recently as 2012), our hero, a bicycle-riding tween named Robby Reed, finds a detached rotary dial (yes, that's right, a detached rotary dial), which, when dialed H - E - R - O, turned him into a random new superhero. He always had to take time to figure out what his new superpower was, which was never convenient when he was in a real jam. So this movie is pretty much as billed, focus on the "fantastic beasts," with all their many assorted names and powers. The "where to find them" is an extra dimension more or less inside the traveling case of Newt Scamander (Redmayne) as he visits New York City to collect a few that escaped. He has to keep the rest secured, a few of which are always trying to escape. You get the idea. This all takes place in the 1920s for no apparent reason, but the period detail is charming. Lots of political issues about magic and magic beasts and such. Oh it's going to be big. Wait until you see who shows up at the end. This is a pretty good time, especially with easily impressed and vocal youngsters. Maybe you know a few.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899)

I was surprised on checking in again with Mark Twain's great long story to find out he was in his 60s when he wrote it. It has all the acid of an old man, that's for sure, but it proceeds with the clarity of a child's tale. That does make it a little programmatic on one level, yet the implicit faith in the corruption of the human soul is so complete as to render that a feeble objection. Twain simply sets up the ten-pins of the pious hypocrites and throws stones down the alley at them. Of course they fall—all of them. That's the fun of this. Another detail I like is that we never learn the original offense that motivates "the stranger" to his elaborate revenge. This story has some parallel in Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," which similarly presents a daydream of revenge. I call them daydreams because they go so perfectly, as if honed and burnished by a feverish mind over weeks and years of imagining them. In Twain's story, there are some hiccups. One family of hypocrites is spared through the secret actions of the Reverend Burgess, who bears his own stain as sinner. Yet even this resolves ultimately to the satisfaction of the revenger, more evidence for the daydream. I am always impressed by how boldly and neatly the man in the title accomplishes the corruption. One or two swift actions takes care of it. (Compare Osama bin Laden and 9/11.) It depends on a base but simple understanding of human psychology, along with the devilishly clever plot. I see by Wikipedia that some have attempted to connect the story with a real-life incident involving Twain and the town of Oberlin, Ohio. It might be so—didn't Stephen King do something similar, perhaps with obnoxious fans generally, in Misery? It would not surprise me at all to find there was a town in Ohio that resembled Hadleyburg. But it's also a little reductionist, and even beside the point. The reason this story is still read today—and should be!—has more to do with its take on human nature than any real town in the past. Yes, it's something of a harsh story, and makes me a little sad for the sense of Twain's growing bitterness toward the end of his life. At the same time it reminds me of the joke about not being depressed means you're not paying attention. I have sympathy—and at the very least the story shows again what an extraordinary writer Twain was.

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

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Next Day (2013)

I have long counted David Bowie very high on my list of various original classic rock heroes. His astonishing '70s run was already in place and ongoing when I caught up to him with Hunky Dory a few years past its release, with the song "Changes," and then the first side of that album and then the second side, and so through the '70s. He mattered to me for all the reasons people talk about—he embraced and forced the issue of "being a weirdo," continually morphing into cartoonishly colorful "identities," full of knowing sexual overtones as well as childish innocence, often explained in summary with the assumption, which he played to all the time, that he must be some kind of alien from outer space. The best of Bowie's career is built on providing an outlet for anyone born knowing they are an alien from outer space too. He mattered to me more at some times than others, even in his heyday. After Aladdin Sane, he didn't interest me so much, except for a few singles, for several years, until he was in Berlin with Eno.

But if David Bowie is anything he is uneven, so it's little surprise that's as true about his glory years as his (admittedly arguable) years in the desert. He wrote and performed terrific music. When he put away his underlying alien persona for one more on the order of a refined gentleman of the world, a lot of us checked out. There was some merit, I can still find it, in Let's Dance, as there was merit (or likely) in Tonight, Never Let Me Down, Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Earthling, Hours, Heathen, on and on. Some were hailed as comebacks. Some I don't know at all, full disclosure, but I know the majority were variously disappointing and/or underwhelming. In short, I didn't think he had another good album in him, let alone a great one.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Radio Days (1987)

USA, 88 minutes
Director/writer: Woody Allen
Photography: Carlo Di Palma
Music: Woody Allen mixtape
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Cast: Woody Allen, Julie Kavner, Michael Tucker, Seth Green, Dianne Wiest, Mia Farrow, Danny Aiello, Josh Mostel, Wallace Shawn, Don Pardo, Kenneth Mars, Tito Puente, Larry David, Jeff Daniels, Kitty Carlisle, Tony Roberts, Diane Keaton

This charming Woody Allen picture may be somewhat overlooked because it's a tricky one to categorize. Or maybe because it doesn't seem that original. Director and writer Allen has basically taken the flashback sequences from Annie Hall 10 years earlier and blown them up into a neat little feature, just under 90 minutes like most of his movies. It's closer to an essay-film than anything, a sentimental memoir of childhood years built around anecdotes and songs connected with that early instrument of mass media, the radio. Allen touches on radio theater dramas such as The Shadow (or his version, "The Masked Avenger"), daytime gossip shows, news featurettes, quiz shows, and more, including, at one point, a hit parade of the songs that played.

The structure is freewheeling, friendly, open—deceptively easygoing, with a very sharp screenplay that moves like a stream from anecdote to tall tale and back again. His family is full of characters, a mother (Julie Kavner) and father (Michael Tucker) who present an interesting contrast to what we would see in another 10 years in the documentary Wild Man Blues. I guess "idealized" covers it. They sure look like nice parents through the prism of this movie. There is also extended family: an Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest), perennially single, and more aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighbors, teachers, and hangers-on, kooky characters all. Woody Allen's voice is all over it as the narrator, but the screenplay is as tight as anything he's done, he's never in the frame, and it often feels like sitting around talking to him, or listening, as he holds court.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

"Dream Children" (1976)

Story by Gail Godwin not available online.

The first thing I noticed about this story was the similarity of the title to the strange and moving essay by Charles Lamb, "Dream-Children; A Reverie"—the word "reverie" even shows up in this story, twice. It's an elliptical narrative, with many line breaks, italicized sentences, and different focuses. The main character is a woman who remains unnamed, married to a television producer and living a comfortable life in the country. Earlier in her life she lost a child during childbirth. A hysterectomy was required. With this past, she dreams at night, or experiences at night, encounters with her dead child, who is alive now in the world ("somewhere in Florida, probably on the west coast") and who is also dreaming or experiencing these encounters with her. It is likely a delusion, but the story seems equally open to the reality of a powerful spiritual or even supernatural experience. Well, maybe, but I read this openness as a kind of mushy attempt to have it both ways. The woman is undergoing a powerful experience, because she is likely deranged, yet it's all real too. That's a little too ambiguous for me. But perhaps because I like and feel so much affinity for the Lamb essay I was often willing to give this story a pass. I think Godwin must have been familiar with it. The desperation of the woman in this story for contact with the child is palpable, and moving. But then the story, which is not that long, shifts into scenes of her husband and his career, and it starts to feel like territory previously covered by Ann Beattie, or maybe John Cheever, and many others as well: sorting through the wreckage of the sexual revolution for pieces of the old ways that you liked, most notably, here, the sanctity of bearing and raising children. Thinking about it later, there isn't very much that I liked about this story. But Godwin is an unusually beguiling writer here, hopscotching a wide range of setting and incident, and implicitly promising it's all going to add up. It doesn't all add up, but she gets you all the way to the end, and that has to count for something. A bit of a mess, but an intriguing one.

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

Monday, January 09, 2017

Fences (2016)

The primary purpose of this movie is obvious, given away by its Christmas Day release. It's here to win Oscars and be important. And if that's the only way a movie like this can be made, well, all right. I'm not exactly saying Fences is timelessly great, though it's pretty darned good. A big budget screen adaptation by August Wilson of his own play—with posthumous uncredited input from Tony Kushner—is probably not going to happen much of any other way. The bones of Fences are solid in the original play and story, which bristle with 20th-century African-American history. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who also directs) is a garbage man in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, a washed-up and bitter former Negro League baseball player. He was quite a player, they all agree—only Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson were better, says one character—and now he's quite a storyteller. In the fullness of this narrative he was hard for me to like, but he's often infectiously charming when he gets wound up into his stories. Making him unlikable is a choice and it serves the whole well. There is a lot of complexity in Troy Maxson, and in all the other characters here too—his wife Rose (Viola Davis), a grown son from his first marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his son with Rose, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who shows signs of athleticism himself, and a brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) suffering from untreated World War II PTSD. It's a great story and no amount of high-toned well-meaning production can obscure that—indeed, it probably helped with winning on all the talent. The play's the thing, as somebody said. This movie is built on a good play and further fortified by excellent performances. I wasn't always sold on Washington, but that might be because I wasn't always sold on Troy Maxson—which probably means it's a good performance. I thought Viola Davis as his wife Rose was the best thing in a picture full of great things. She is humble, long-suffering, and eloquent when the occasion calls, full of bubbling joy and poignant dignity that never feel put on. Stephen Henderson as family friend Jim Bono is also great in a supporting role. Washington's directing is nothing special—he seems to like putting characters at opposite sides of the frame to fill the screen, and he uses lots of close-ups. But it's still mostly a film of a play, driven by dialogue in static settings. Washington never gets in the way of anything either. Altogether a safe choice.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

11/22/63 (2011)

In this day and age it might be true that no one writes more compelling big fat novels than our master of horror, Stephen King. As you probably know (or can tell), 11/22/63 is not exactly horror, but more like straight-up science fiction time travel with a dash of alternate history, plus various moral object lessons. As is my experience with so many King novels, approximately the first third is the best part, busy laying out concepts and embarking on the quest of the plot. After that it's often a lot of attempts to resolve issues large and small, which starts to feel mechanical. For the most part King adheres to the DC Comics precepts of time travel—in short, you can't change history no matter what you do, so don't even try—though it switches up some of the rules and has a few surprises. The core premise is pure baby boomer territory, with our two main heroes traveling back to 1958 in a rift they find in the pantry of a diner. Their mission: thwart the assassination of John Kennedy. Complications ensue, as they will in a novel that runs to over 800 pages. Along the way I was impressed by how much information about that day I have absorbed—no surprise really, as I am a Social Security card-carrying baby boomer myself. This story adheres faithfully to the popular lone-gunman version of events, starring Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin. King hardly ignores the conspiracies, and doesn't exactly rule them out either, but Oswald is the guy they're trying to stop in this book. In an afterword, King discusses the case and how he arrived at the lone-gunman conclusion for himself. (And once again Case Closed is cited, so enough. I will have to get to it one day after all.) To be clear, on the other assumption about Kennedy's death, I do not agree with the idea that Kennedy's assassination was some critical pivot point of American history (beyond the space program), and it turns out King probably has some reservations about that too. There's not much in the way of profound historical insight here, but the great fun of this book is the getting there, always a wonderful point in works of these proportions, when they are working. King obviously relishes the detail of the period under consideration, 1958 to 1963, with the kind of incidentals at which he can be so good, popular culture markers of songs, movies, TV, news events, and even food, along with familiar family emotional dynamics. There's also a very nice love story here. As always, King's knack for making the ordinary feel portentous is well exercised. He is especially good here at anthropomorphizing circumstances—that is, the daily humdrum of good days and bad days—injecting indelible elements of malevolence into things like paper cuts or stumbling on a sidewalk, as if powerful unseen forces are constantly swirling around us and influencing things. This is a fun one for long days and nights of reading.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Groundhog Day (1993)

USA, 101 minutes
Director: Harold Ramis
Writers: Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis
Photography: John Bailey
Music: George Fenton
Editor: Pembroke J. Herring
Cast: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky, Willie Garson, Harold Ramis, Michael Shannon

Groundhog Day is an American comedy with Bill Murray that manages to reach totally unexpected levels of dare I say wisdom. Or, at the very least, a powerful and suggestive kind of wish fulfillment. That's mostly a matter of its premise but it's also partly due to how cowriters Danny Rubin and director Harold Ramis play it out. The casual word on the DVD extras now is that everyone loves it—everyone, including Buddhists, psychiatrists, Hasidic Jews, aboriginal shamans, and Scientologists, as well as practically everyone who worked on it and me too. We all see a secret in it, comporting with our belief systems, that we thought we might be the only ones who knew about.

It's funny too (which matters for a comedy), with Bill Murray in prime form and no one in his way. It was a big hit, and not just among Hasidic Jews. You've probably seen it yourself or at least know the basic idea: on February 2 of a typical day in the '90s, Phil Connors, a bitter and cynical weatherman (Murray), gets stuck in a time loop in Punxutawney, Pennsylvania. For most of the duration of the movie he is doomed (ultimately privileged) to live that day over and over again. Much of the power of this movie comes from what cowriter Rubin portentously calls "the weight of time." Well, it's portentous, but it's right. This is some other dimension where only a specific 24 hours exists—make it 23, as attempts to stay up until the change point, 6 a.m., mysteriously always fail (of course). But that one February 2 appears to exist for eternity. From what we see developing over its length, and according to Ramis, we're talking about millennia as a time span for this movie.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

"The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892)

Read story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman online.

This story is now a landmark of feminist literature, but I encountered it first as a story in a horror collection (I wrote about it a couple years ago here). It qualified as horror probably because it deals with madness, a recurring theme of horror, along with the institutions that house the afflicted. But it's easy now to see the feminist themes too. The first-person narrator, who remains unnamed (a common device among short stories, I am seeing), has suffered some kind of nervous breakdown. Her husband John is a doctor and orders bed rest for her and a minimum of mental stimulation. She has nothing to read and is forbidden to write—a certain hell for some of us. The story is her journal, kept in secret. With a minimum of outside stimulation, she becomes fascinated and obsessed with the pattern of the yellow wallpaper in the room where she is confined. She tries to analyze the intricate patterns—"I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry"—but she can't. Eventually she believes she sees the figure of a woman moving behind the pattern, trapped behind the pattern, struggling to get out. Eventually she identifies that woman as herself. It's also possible to read this as a straightforward profile of mental illness, when her perceptions go to such extremes—more in the line of conventional horror. But other details tell. She may be confined but she's not exactly isolated. Her husband sleeps there with her at night. She notes frightful details about the room—the wallpaper has been previously torn away in spots, "the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there," and the bed is nailed to the floor. It's all a bit like the movie The Tenant. No one else in this story particularly registers these terrible details, yet they feel more concrete than the delusions of a sick mind and/or feminist allegory of a woman's position in society. It feels more like a chamber of horrors somehow. At the same time, the woman also feels genuinely unstable. Something is wrong with her and also with that room, that wallpaper. The story still affects me strangely. But it makes all sense as a feminist parable too, which is the way Gilman intended it. While we're at it, it's also a good indictment of attitudes toward mental illness that prevail yet today. It's a remarkable story.

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

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Law & Order, s1 (1990-1991)

USA, TV series (NBC)
Creator: Dick Wolf
Cast: George Dzundza, Chris Noth, Dann Florek, Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooks, Steven Hill

I've been meaning to make a project of the original Law & Order TV show, a daunting task, not least because it's one of the longest-running shows ever, after only The Simpsons (still going) and tied with Gunsmoke. Interestingly, or not, its longevity is currently being stalked by one of its own spinoffs, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which has now gone 18 seasons, compared with the original's (and Gunsmoke's) 20. The Simpsons, by comparison, has now gone 28. I say "or not" because, to be clear, I don't consider the spinoffs, any of them, in the same league. Law & Order, the flagship, had a purity of abstraction the others ultimately never came close to—really never tried, as they were intended as more conventional TV drama in their conception. Indeed, even the flagship series eventually succumbed to TV's institutional pressures, most notably in its prolonged unlovely affair with Sam Waterston.

But all that is far in the future for this first season, which brings me to my other reason for putting it off so long. When I first discovered Law & Order, in syndicated reruns in the mid-'90s, it was easy to spot the earliest episodes. No, it was not just the presence of George Dzundza as detective Max Greevey, who appeared only in this first season, as partner to Mike Logan (Chris Noth, still with baby fat). Many episodes in the first season are qualitatively different. The characters are slightly out of key, their interrelations have not jelled yet. There's even one District Attorney who is not Adam Schiff (let alone Arthur Branch).

Monday, January 02, 2017

Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight is an ambitious coming-of-age picture, telling the story of an African-American kid growing up in Miami 20 years ago. He lives with gangbangers in his neighborhood and a mother who is a practicing crack addict. No father. He's gay too, which is something lots of people figure out before he does, including his mother. Very few are nice about it, including his mother, but in the end this movie is more about those very few. He's not just gay, but also sensitive, dreamy, and introverted. It's a tough life. Moonlight is formally ambitious as well, divided into three sections, with all different people playing the leads. The first sequence is from his childhood. He is constantly picked on in school and known as "Little" (which he is). The second section shows him as a high school adolescent, not as little but still picked on and now insisting on his actual name, "Chiron." In the third section he's a full-grown adult, buffed up considerably, living in Atlanta as a drug dealer. Now he calls himself "Black," for a nickname given him by a friend and lover in high school, Kevin. As the movie evolves, it is more and more about their relationship. The characters are hard and so are their lives. The high school scenes were most stressful because it's hard to look at what happens to him. It's interesting to discover the "woke" people who pass through Chiron's sphere. They're there. Kevin, his childhood friend, turns out to be one of them. When Chiron is still Little, a drug dealer reaches out to him, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) don't care if Little is gay. They tell him it's way too early to think about that, and he'll know when the time comes. Juan is decent in spite of his occupation, and bravely carries an obvious load of pain. His scenes are some of the best, but there are great scenes all the way. Moonlight might be easily reduced to stereotypes in summary, and might even sound gimmicky, but it has a sure and confident way of moving the story, which is always interesting, and it's packed with great performances. All six of the main leads—Alex R. Hibbert as Little, Ashton Sanders as Chiron, Trevante Rhodes as Black, and Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland as the corresponding Kevins—are no less than very good, and often phenomenal (especially Sanders, Rhodes, and Holland). It also looks beautiful. Plus it's a fine addition to other "moon" movies such as Bitter Moon, Paper Moon, Shoot the Moon, Moonrise, Racing With the Moon, Under the Cherry Moon, A Trip to the Moon, Duncan Jones's Moon, and others.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

New Year memo

Hey everybody. Well, shit. This past year. Where do you start? Bowie's death was sad but kind of sweet, all things considered, and at least it was natural enough. Prince was just sad. Real sad. And it went downhill from there, into a bad political campaign season and an even worse result we are going to have to figure out how to live with. It was just cruel to finish off with George Michael and Carrie Fisher, and then, Jesus Christ, Debbie Reynolds the next day. Too much death this year. I'm still picking up the pieces, more or less, with scattered thoughts about What To Do and what to expect, but it's not at all clear. For now, long term, I'm partial to the ideas in the Indivisible what-you-call-it. That make the most sense to me at the moment. We have to start thinking long-term and 50-state. I also think Obama's OFA site offers many good ways to direct energy right now, and I am hoping it will continue to do so. Things are likely to happen fast in the coming months and we're going to have to push back every way we can, even though our options are limited. It's heartbreaking to think about. The Supreme Court. Health care in America (my health care in America). The environment. The corruption and the horrors ahead. Or so it looks to me at the moment, on these dark nights. It's probably going to be bad, that's all. But we have to do what we can to resist an autocratic America that no one really wants.

On that note, Happy New Year and all best as always to readers. Really. Here's what's ahead on the blog, because I'm still planning, as always, to continue it until stamina do me part. The short story project started slow last year while I figured things out, and then in November I started to catch it up more. But it still has a ways to go—125 stories, as billed, and so far I've just covered 32.8% of that. So this year Thursdays and last Sundays will be short story celebrations, accompanied with probing questions. I'm going to poke away at albums, approximately every other Saturday. I'm going to keep reviewing new movies that I go out to a theater with noisy annoying people to see. Those will continue Mondays. And books on Sundays, movies on Fridays, some things never change.

Here are 16 movies I saw in 2016 that were extremely swell, in approximate descending order of swellness (subject to endless revision in the years ahead):

1. Frontière(s) (2007)
2. Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998)
3. Manchester By the Sea (2016)
4. Sing Street (2016)
5. The Handmaiden (2016)
6. Love & Friendship (2016)
7. Leonard Cohen: Live in London (2009)
8. Inside Out (2015)
9. Trainwreck (2015)
10. Sicario (2015)
11. Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
12. Deadpool (2016)
13. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
14. Babel (2006)
15. Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live (1974, 45 min.)
16. Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (2015)

Oh yeah, and GO BUY MY BOOK.