Monday, February 27, 2017

Elle (2016)

Director Paul Verhoeven's first movie in 10 years is unsurprising in its themes—it's the kind of provocateur gesture he's chased for much of his career (think Basic Instinct, Showgirls, or even Total Recall). But, given those themes, it's surprising in its ability to engage, befuddle, and provoke. Nothing here is like a slice of life any way I know yet it's impossible to stop watching. Isabelle Huppert, who is doing her own reprisal of career-long themes (think White Material, Amour, and especially The Piano Teacher), is casually astonishing, which is typical for her. In many ways Verhoeven and Huppert is a dream team that could have happened long ago. Huppert is Michele Leblanc, a complicated woman—head of a successful video game company, serial philanderer, daughter of a reviled serial killer. This background emerges slowly—the picture is a character study of Leblanc and that's something that requires a lot of unpacking. The screenplay effectively lures and hooks us by doling out the vital information about her piecemeal even as it moves relentlessly forward. Her actions in front of us fill the rest of the picture out, though there's a lot of erasing and rewriting of impressions as we go. Sexual assault is the essential medium this movie travels in. The first scene is a home invasion rape suffered by Leblanc, and then it turns out the creep is stalking her. She has her reasons for not going to the police, connected to her experience with her father. She's ice cold dealing with the rape—orders takeout food on the phone, goes to the hospital for medical screening, casually spoils a get-together with friends by telling them and then worrying them further by her apparent indifference. At about the halfway point of the movie, a good handful of the people around her are likely candidates to be the culprit. They are also great characters, all of them, sharply etched. For a flavor of horror (not really necessary, thanks), the picture is full of shock cuts and surprise images. You may be impatient to know certain things, but the movie is always giving you important information. It goes to places that may be hard to believe, but again, even in your disbelief, it never lost its grip. Among other things, Verhoeven's previous picture, Black Book, demonstrated his command of distraction with narrative force, and in Elle, if anything, it's even better. Brace yourself.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Soldier's Home" (1925)

Read story by Ernest Hemingway online.

Even halfway into this very short story I was pretty sure I would be coming away from it complaining again about Ernest Hemingway's mechanized stoicism and all that implicit machismo. To be sure, those elements are here, and they are as annoying as ever. But there's also something distinctly modern about this, like the stories we hear about soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that from Vietnam. But not from Korea, or, before this, from either of the world wars. The stoicism of our hero Krebs, the returning warrior, is palpable, yes, but somehow suffused with dignity and a certain intimidating demeanor. It's not pitiable at all, on a certain level, nor arrogant, except as emotional defense. I don't recall seeing anything like this in Hemingway before. It's one of his early stories, which tended to be his best work. The language is what we've come to expect: a minimum of adjectives, and monolithic paragraphs filled with verbs, nouns, and conjunctions. It's stripped down and clean, but note that the compound clauses can really pile up sometimes. There's machismo, but less in the authorial voice than in the character Krebs, and there it seems for the most part bluster. Yet he's not unsympathetic. More than anything he is opaque, though obviously wounded psychically. It's just that no one knows what to do about it—not Krebs himself, nor anyone around him, nor even the author either evidently. Nowadays we would prescribe time, rest, and psychotherapy, but nowadays we also collectively refuse to follow through on that, leaving our wounded warriors wounded, but thanking them in train stations for their service. I'll give Hemingway the benefit of the doubt that he (sort of) knew the problem, though not what to do about it. That what he did was take the sense of something wrong as his motivation to write, and all the puzzling surface details he saw but could make no sense of as his subject. Hemingway was a journalist first, remember, and in many ways a story like this is just a kind of reporting. Never mind that many sentences here would never get past a copy editor without some judicious attempts for a little more clarity. It's almost better without it. The sense of someone utterly stunned by life is the essence of this story. The soldier has returned to the soldier's home, but the soldier isn't home. Since the war, there's no home for him anywhere.

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Take Care (2011)

Brought up on vinyl, I'm still often surprised to realize that many albums in the CD era and later are actually equivalents of the old double-LP gatefold packages, which were unusual markers of ambition (and/or live sets) and a very big deal for most artists back in the day. (With the possible exception of recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Chicago, who released them like they were hawking up phlegm.) Take Care, Drake's second full-length album, runs over 83 minutes, which is easily four vinyl sides. I was curious about this album because a list I saw on the internet said Drake was the world's greatest rapper in 2011 (also 2010, if I recall). In a way I think Take Care could have stood some pruning as playing it always puts me through a familiar drill. I love it for about half an hour and then it starts to feel like it's been going on too long. Shuffle only confirms this: it's not just the first seven tracks of the 19 on Take Care that I like, but more or less whatever first seven I happen to hear. So maybe it's best all shattered into pieces and dropped into mixes. As a matter of approach, Drake is more or less a bedroom heartthrob—the tunes are soft and pretty, and the raps are majority smoov talk from a sad boy alone in his room. Something about this album reminds me constantly of Prince or maybe that's the song by Smog, "Prince Alone in the Studio" (which is more like the opposite of both Prince and Drake). Take Care feels deeply insulated, emanating from gentle personal regions. Listen too close and you start to understand better—the themes are often focused on the tribulations of fame, which I'm sure pose difficult and annoying problems but they're also alienating for most of the rest of us. "They know, they know, they know," Drake sings in the chorus of "Headlines," perhaps the biggest hit of a handful spawned by the album. It appears what they know is that Drake is famous now, because "the real is on the rise / Fuck them other guys." Thus, as far as his words go, I prefer the punning tangles he can toss off, as in the album opener "Over My Dead Body," where he goes, "Shout out to Asian girls, let the lights dim some." But it's hard to miss that usually his preoccupation is with celebrity—a natural enough response for anyone who has had their long dream of fame suddenly thrust on them. But also a natural enough reason on our part to skip listening too closely. Many songs here have killer hooks lurking somewhere in and around the bedroom intimations and cloistered hush of the production, and there are lots of happy surprises that came of obviously working so hard at this. But it's long and uneven and the celebrity focus can torpedo the whole thing if I'm in the wrong mood. Mix it up in a shuffle with a few other albums, however, and it steals the show over and over.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Boyhood (2014)

USA, 165 minutes
Director/writer: Richard Linklater
Photography: Lee Daniel, Shane F. Kelly
Music: Family of the Year, Coldplay, Blink 182, Flaming Lips, Ethan Hawke, Wilco
Editor: Sandra Adair
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella, Steven Chester Prince, Jenni Tooley, Elijah Smith

I guess it's fair enough to call Boyhood a stunt movie, so I'll start there. Even as a stunt movie it's a little different. In most of them—Russian Ark, say, or Boyhood's contemporaneous Birdman, or even the big-dog stunt movie of all time (because it has so many stunts), Citizen Kane—it's not always easy to see much around the dazzling corners of the stunt. By contrast, Boyhood is one of the warmest and most comfortable movies I know, whose longish running time of nearly three hours always zips by too fast. The fact that it's the stunt itself that is ultimately responsible for that is just one more amazing piece of this amazing movie.

The stunt, on the off-chance you haven't heard, is that director and writer Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood in bits and pieces over a 12-year period, from 2002 to 2013. The idea was to make an ultrarealistic movie about growing up—and it is indeed that, but in the process it grows to be much more, almost a meditation on aging itself. It asks the most profound questions of life and our purpose simply by showing images that include time, real time. It's not, of course, just Ellar Coltrane as the boy Mason who ages and changes (from 6 to 17), but everyone in this picture, including the adults who play his mother and father, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Twelve years is enough time to mark anyone with the subtle scars of aging and emotional maturity.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

"Letters From the Samantha" (1976)

Story by Mark Helprin not available online.

Mark Helprin's story is an old-fashioned one in many ways, and a wonderful leap of imagination. Set in the Indian Ocean sailing waters off the coast of Africa in 1909, it's composed entirely of letters, or perhaps better "memos to file," written by the captain of the ship about strange and extraordinary events. It's not exactly epistolary, which implies correspondence among two or more people, but more like a series of journal entries. Near Madagascar, the ship encounters a typhoon, a powerful cyclone at sea. They see the powerful funnel raking debris off the land as it heads to sea and creates a giant waterspout. It comes close enough to the ship that the crew hears the terrible noise it makes. Then it veers away, leaving them bobbing among the debris, miraculously uninjured. They spy an ape clinging to debris in the water. Without thinking about it, they rescue it and bring it aboard, where it quickly climbs the riggings of the sailing vessel and refuses to come down. Even as the primate comes aboard the captain realizes the mistake. The immediate plan is to put it back in the water where the currents favor it drifting to shore. But it won't come down and a day or two later they are on the high seas again. It is a powerful animal and the crew is afraid of it, but they can't capture it. The letters span about two weeks, from Madagascar to Suez, detailing the fate of the ape and the men aboard the ship. It is both comical and tragic, very funny and very sad. The letters seem gimmicky in some ways, a self-consciously old-fashioned device, but they work. The point of view is the captain addressing his corporate betters. The dates and letters also put the action at a great remove. The events, especially the cyclone, feel like fairy tale stuff. It all turns on the ape, which wisely is made more naturalistic than fantastical. The captain himself tells us exactly what to make of the events at the end of the story, and his conclusion may be the most disturbing thing of all in a story filled with gnawing unease. It feels a little like something Joseph Conrad might write, updated with the sensibilities and perspective of the mid-'70s, when the story was written and published. It's exotic and pedestrian at once. Its strangest elements, the tornado and the ape, are described exquisitely well, accomplishing that sense of transport that fiction can do so well, and then it only gets better from there.

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

The Lego Batman Movie looked like a decent chance for escapist laughs, all things considered, and bearing in mind I still haven't seen the galactically successful first Lego movie. What do I need to know? It's a cartoon with a Lego toy overlay in terms of visual textures. A preview I happened to see made me laugh. Take it as DC's attempt at the ingenious comic book movie parody of Marvel's Deadpool—which it more or less is, case closed the end. I may be a little more of a DC partisan over Marvel, but I know how much DC can flop at their own game when they start chasing what other people do. As usual, they come up short. But that doesn't mean the movie isn't fun or worth a peek. I mean, come on. The Batman (with or without the definite article) is a target-rich environment for parody by any standard. A lot of creative, inventive, and funny people are busy in this movie deconstructing the enterprise for the last 50 years or possibly more, along with other features of the DC universe. They reach over into the Superman bag of tricks for the Fortress of Solitude and the Phantom Zone. In fact, practically everybody gets a cameo in a quick Justice League of America reunion scene to which Batman wasn't invited. The problem with the antisocial Batman, you see, is nobody likes him. Next thing you know, everybody in a certain legal silo of the entertainment universe is there: the Wicked Witch of the West, Godzilla, King Kong, gremlins. Something about the Phantom Zone. You'll want to score the disc when it's released because there's a whole series of regular freeze frame fests for the cameos alone. The animation is a dazzling mixed bag of primitive stop-motion, CGI, and I don't know what all, straying at will into Transformers territory too with big complicated machines that change shape at lightning speed. Wowza! And often quite surprisingly beautiful. But ultimately it's a Batman movie (with Lego toy textures), paying respect to the heritage even as it sends it up. In one flashing eye-popping montage the style of every Batman movie is riffed on, concluding with the '60s TV show. Mostly they make fun of the darkness of the Batman but they also have a lot of obvious fun with the Robin story. It's all good. This Batman turns out to be a preening, whining, aging narcissist who takes credit for battling evil even as all his arch-villain enemies get away and nothing gets better. At one point he brags that he doesn't pay taxes. He is like the most foul grizzled Clint Eastwood imaginable—he keeps the mask on most of the time—and he is insufferably, bunglingly macho. This movie among other things is on a mission to fix these character flaws, mostly with song and dance and happiness. Commissioner Barbara Gordon, succeeding her retiring father, is all about law and order and raising everyone up with community service: Stronger Together, you might say. Or, as Commissioner Gordon actually says (twice), it takes a village to stop crime. That's the problem with escapism. You just can't get away from what you're trying to escape. Even so, The Lego Batman Movie is a pretty good comedy and not a bad Batman movie. Great soundtrack too.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Marilyn: A Biography (1973)

Norman Mailer's meditation on the life of Marilyn Monroe turned out to be one of his most successful books commercially, second only to The Naked and the Dead. That was partly because of its subject—it started life as, and was mainly, a collection of photographs of Monroe—and partly because of Mailer's fanciful suggestion that government agents had something to do with her death. Mailer's text is mostly a kind of book report on three previous biographies, though he also conducted some original research with a dozen or more interviews. The first section is titled "A Novel Biographer," but thankfully he does not borrow any more from The Armies of the Night, with its talk of the Novelist and the Historian. For me, Marilyn is a useful enough primer on the arc of Monroe's career and life. I've never read a biography of her, though most of the basic points were familiar. I know I read portions of this when excerpts were published in Rolling Stone in the '70s. I've been mostly bemused by Monroe and have no particular stake in her reputation. Particularly her turn in Some Like It Hot, where she is often zombie-like, has had some fascination / repulsion for me. More recently, I'm willing to give her her due for much better performances elsewhere  (Bus Stop, The Misfits, and a lot of her early comedy roles such as in Monkey Business). But I was still surprised to learn how highly regarded she was by Lee Strasberg and his many disciples of the Method school of acting. Knowing this, I can see it, but even in her best roles I think she's often hit and miss from scene to scene. Mailer's text is a little lacking in the kindle version without the photos, which can have a vivid impact. Probably better to look at a print version that has them. Mailer is dogged about telling her whole story, relating it anecdotally but at the same time searching for the patterns and larger meaning. So it's good on the basic points, even if they are secondhand from the other biographers. It's a useful way, perhaps, to start thinking about the themes of her life and death. It was taken as controversial in its time for all the suggestions of government malfeasance of some kind surrounding her death. They didn't strike me as particularly out of line, but rather more just as Mailer being Mailer. Pugnacious to a fault (literally) and always willing to entertain conspiracy theories, as far as he thinks he can take them. The liaisons (alleged?) with the Kennedys are woefully under-documented, the best I can tell, and so Mailer's speculations about CIA and/or FBI dirty tricks seem built on frailest reeds. At the same time, I remembered it's J. Edgar Hoover he was talking about with the FBI. I wouldn't put anything past that guy. An interesting read.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Soapdish (1991)

USA, 97 minutes
Director: Michael Hoffman
Writers: Robert Harling, Andrew Bergman
Photography: Ueli Steiger
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editor: Garth Craven
Cast: Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Elisabeth Shue, Robert Downey Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Cathy Moriarty, Garry Marshall, Leeza Gibbons, Teri Hatcher, Ben Stein, Carrie Fisher, Paul Johansson, John Tesh, Willie Garson

Sally Field started her career in television on Gidget and The Flying Nun, and capped the proudest moment of her life—a second Best Actress Oscar—with a famous declaration to the Academy at large, or perhaps the world, that "You like me, you really like me." All entertainment involving her may safely be categorized as light (in spite of the Oscars for serious dramatic roles in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart). The strength of Soapdish is exactly in this lightness. It's a chiffon of bubble bath foam erupting over the side of a hot-air balloon in a Rock Hudson vehicle. This is signaled from the beginning with the kodachrome titles reminiscent of all light '60s entertainment, Dobie Gillis, Where the Boys Are, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, My Three Sons, etc.

Fortunately for us, Soapdish is not quite as corny or factory-formed as any of that, though it is both corny and factory-formed. It's a satire of the soap opera industry, although even that is left behind by plot developments arriving at regular intervals from left field. Sally Field plays Celeste Talbert, a soap opera star who wins the soap opera equivalent of Emmys on a monotonous basis and has been in the business since she was a teen. Elisabeth Shue is Lori Craven, a temp worker who yearns to act and will do anything to break into the business. Kevin Kline is Jeffrey Anderson, a preening buffoon who puffs up holding court on the craft of acting. Robert Downey Jr. is—look, did I mention this is a star-studded cavalcade?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" (1837)

Read story by Nathaniel Hawthorne online.

I usually come around to liking anything I read by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but I have to admit he can be a terrible chore sometimes. This short story is typical, taking off on the Fountain of Youth myth for a kind of parable, or fable. The scientist in the title is presented as something closer to an alchemist or magician in the very long paragraph describing his "chamber." Well, that's fine for atmosphere. Dr. Heidegger has acquired a quantity of a rejuvenating liquid and gathered up four old specimens: three aging gentlemen and the bird they used to fight over. What could possibly go wrong? For their elucidation, Dr. Heidegger demonstrates the effects of the liquid on a rosebud more than 50 years old ("rosebud"). Sure enough, right back to blooming. The guests decide they'd like to sample this beverage. And again. In a matter of minutes they have returned to middle age. Then it's all the way back to youth, sweet youth—meaning, approximately, age 21 or 22. Naturally, the men begin fighting over the woman again. Dr. Heidegger breaks it up by calling their attention to the rose. It is aging, shriveling, and dying. In the fight, the four spilled the remainder of the precious fluid. Now they regret that deeply. Some subtleties occur to me. What is the nature of this experiment? Dr. Heidegger does not drink. Is that because he knows from previous experience that the results don't last long? He seems to deny foreknowledge. The experiment appears to be more than just looking at the effects of the elixir on humans. Did he gather these four particular humans deliberately? There is also a chance they are simply the people he happens to know. But he demands a commitment from them before they get their drink—that they remember their hard-won lessons from life. Of course they assent, eagerly. We all know we are wise now. Look how old we are. But as the sap of youth rises, they throw all that out, and the beverage too. "Youth is wasted on the young," Hawthorne seems to be affirming, with the surprising proviso that it's wasted even with the experience of age. Whatever the mysterious Dr. Heidegger intended to investigate with his experiment, the result for us is another comically bleak examination of the human spirit.

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)

It's possible I was confused by the setting of this short novel by Thornton Wilder, but I think it fits surprisingly well with strains of Latin American literature—with Gabrial Marcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Roberto Bolano, with Bernal Diaz's Conquest of New Spain, perhaps most of all with Jorge Luis Borges. It surprised me that it came from the author of the play Our Town. It's set in Spanish colonial Peru, in the early 18th century. A wooden footbridge over a canyon-like abyss in the highlands of the Andes gives way, and five people who happened to be crossing it drop to their deaths. A missionary priest, Brother Juniper, takes it upon himself to investigate the deaths, wanting to uncover the reason God took them so seemingly randomly. At the center of this narrative is the image of the five plunging to their deaths—it recurs again and again, at the end of each section, the inevitable conclusion (and the only clear one) of these investigations. Swirling around that image are the complicated lives of the dead, rendered all in moral shades of gray. One woman never wanted to marry. Now she feuds with her daughter whose marriage has taken her to Spain, and writes a series of beautiful letters. Another is a twin whose brother recently died. Their relationship is fierce, tortured, confusing. Another is a patron of the arts in the colonial outpost. All have sinned. All have redeemed themselves. "He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven." That's how Brother Juniper looks at it, and fair enough, at least until you get down to cases. Because which is which—in this story as in the world? That's the wonderful (and sardonic) ambiguity in which this novel dwells. It's short but remarkably dense, as it lays out the frontiers it knows of entire lives, with complications of threads of connections reaching in and around and through them all. Among other things, it's apparent we can only know so much about these people. Additional detail would not help much, you suspect, because it doesn't help much here, except in floating patches. There's a consistency to all these lives we come to recognize, but I'm not sure that's the same as understanding them. In fact, the image at the center of this novel, the five falling into the abyss, is almost perfectly apt for the mystery that suffuses this. I'm not trying to make a joke when I say I'm not sure how Thornton Wilder pulls this off. It's powerful, mysterious, and singular.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Classic Elements (1998)

This is a bit of an unexpected project, a compilation of late-'90s hip-hop from the Pacific Northwest on the K label (I got the album just a few years ago in a grab bag purchase from K and later found it on Napster too). K is a worthy purveyor of regional music but has tended more toward white strains of punk mutating into grunge, with some leanings toward folk (Beck, Modest Mouse, and Built to Spill have all found homes there, along with label head Calvin Johnson's house band Beat Happening). There's some enjoyable fake funk from the Dub Narcotic Sound System, a Johnson side project, but not much in the way of hip-hop (at least, not in my grab bag). But I thought Classic Elements turned out to be one of the best albums of the 25 or whatever they sent me. I plugged the names of the 16 artists here into Wikipedia and got returns on only five, four of which are dubious: Blak (an artist who appears to be someone other than the one on this album), Nobody (again, likely not-to-be-confused), Ski (more confusion, probably not this artist), Source of Labor, and Soulstice (a popular name, though this act again appears to be something other than the two artists described). Well, what else could you expect from an album that's nearly 20 years old, and released on a regional / niche label outside of its specialty area? Hip-hop has turned out to be something like doo wop or punk-rock, infinitely branching out in dozens of directions simultaneously as the potential for money, fame, and/or self-realization drew artists by the thousands. What we have here, with a sort of uniformity of tone even though several different producers are involved, is an insulated muffled sound that feels encased in soundproofing with limits on the highs and a lot of wallowing around in the lows, which sets it rumbling through your head or room. The one act here I can learn anything about easily is Source of Labor (co-credited with Beyond Reality), whose front man was named Wordsayer (who "some credit with personally moving hip-hop out of Seattle's Central District and into the rest of the city"). The Source of Labor track, "Aunt Anna," features a brief speaking clip from someone's great-great-aunt Anna, from Alabama. The track appears to be about the business of making hip-hop myths and connecting them with American myths, a sort of early essay at Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott territories. My favorite (though it's close) is "A.N.I.T.A.," which bemoans "just another night in Tacoma alone" (so technically it should be "J.A.N.I.T.A."). I love the local reference, and can imagine the slick rainy streets that accompany the mood. Another winner when shuffle serves it up is "What's Ya Definition," as in, "what's ya definition of who-manity?" I love the tricky way it scans. If nothing here entirely soars, at least there's not a stinker in the bunch. The whole thing works as a beguiling late-night treat, a mood-setter and friendly vibe, with hooks, homely truth, and melody.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

"Wickedness" (1989)

Story by Ron Hansen not available online.

Ron Hansen's story is not a short story in any conventional sense but more a collection of anecdotes involving a terrible blizzard in Nebraska in 1888. He describes the way the storm intersects with many different people, each separated by a line break. It's powerful stuff and it's all in the details. Along the way he notices how the temperature falls from 30 degrees to 14-below in a matter of hours. So much snow falls that some people can leave their homes only via their roofs. Visibility grows so poor that one woman leaves her home, disappears, and is not discovered again until spring, only a few feet from her door. It's a wonderful and harrowing collection of incidents, many of them shedding acute light on the people attempting to deal with the storm. A teacher, for example, tries to lead two of her students to her home—they live too far to get to their own. But the three are lost even in the short distance to her home. They take shelter in a haystack, but the teacher can't save the children from dying of exposure. Her feet have been so badly frozen they must be amputated. She is so bitter about it that she lets her health get even worse, until finally the town takes up a collection to send her to Oakland, California, where she complains about Nebraska for the rest of her life. This is one of the longer anecdotes in the story, and one of the best examples of how sharply drawn so many of these characters are. The teacher responds heroically, because it is her only choice, and she pays for it with a daunting trauma. But her heart is hardly pure and her end is not that surprising. That's a lot of what makes this a really great story. The character portraits are necessarily pithy (some no longer than a paragraph or two) but they are rich and complex, finding human beings acting in all their manifold ways and with distinct motivations good and bad, even as the calamity descends: stoic, enduring, bearing horrific privations, with horrific results, nursing ancient resentments against one another, and experiencing unexpected joys. All of everything seems to be somehow packed into this. The story ends on a beautiful note of someone callow getting lucky on that day, after so many others found the opposite. For one incident in one place in one time—a momentous incident, it's true, a tremendous blizzard—this story grows to become at least as big as that storm, by simply piling on with the details. A great one.

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

Monday, February 06, 2017

20th Century Women (2016)

20th Century Women is a big-hearted movie full of Talking Heads songs and in many ways that's all I can ever ask of movie entertainment. We know now that this movie didn't manage the Oscar splash that was so clearly part of its reason for being. But what we're left with is first-rate, chockful of appealing stars with chemistry and a really sharp screenplay by director and writer Mike Mills, whose Beginners worked similar regions of human relations and attendant mysteries—warm, surprising, often funny. For that matter, for better or worse, Annette Bening's best movies are also about families falling apart and reassembling in the face of modern living. 20th Century Women fits well with both American Beauty and The Kids Are All Right. Bening plays Dorothea, of Santa Barbara, California, born in 1924. She had a son when she was 40, Jamie. Now it's 1979, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is 15, she is 55, and she can't understand what is happening in the world. The relationship with Jamie's father didn't work—we don't hear much more than that about it, and he's not around. Dorothea lives in a big old house, lets rooms for rent, and is working on renovating the place with one of her tenants, William (Billy Crudup), a mixed-up but amiable hippie burnout. Another tenant is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punk-rocker with cervical cancer. In one priceless scene Abbie tries to explain the Raincoats to Dorothea while one of their albums plays on the turntable. Jamie wants a sexual relationship with 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who may be the most mixed-up one of all. But it's pretty close—they're all confused, and the Jimmy Carter malaise speech doesn't clear up much for them, though it's included. There's a lot of sentimentality to this. But 1979 is also a critical year in American history, and it's not in this movie by accident. There are lots of tender scenes here, and awkward ones too, but it works. It may be because I feel such a natural affinity for all these daffy, lovable people. It might be a movie aimed at my psychographic. Or it might be all those Talking Heads songs. But this is Bening's kind of movie and she's all over it like white on rice—gentle, acerbic, poised in her confusion. The movie is also more evidence for Mike Mills (I'm going to make a point of seeing Thumbsucker now, for one thing). 20th Century Women is light and often very funny, but behind that it's worrying about our futures. It cares, and it doesn't even have to. It's terrific.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

I think I can understand why a person might have a hard time with the deadly earnestness, not to mention the dialect and all the homespun trappings, of John Steinbeck's monumental greatest novel—it's the reason I put off even trying it for most of my life. When I finally got to it, just 10 or 15 years ago, I was surprised by what a beguiling narrative it is. Steinbeck manages this in a few ways. First, another disciple of John Dos Passos, he structured the novel with alternating chapters. The first and primary set is a closely observed story of the Joad family as they decide to leave Oklahoma for California, with incidents of what they find there and along the way. This is the main arc. The other chapters are much shorter, with heightened descriptive language, setting the historical and social context for the story. The Joad family is ignorant and poor, but also decent, perhaps even noble. The historical context of the Dust Bowl environmental disaster and the large-scale migration to California which followed provides a natural backdrop for a great American story. There are many Joads at the beginning, but death and other misadventures whittle down their numbers steadily. The precariousness of their situation is always felt. And there's no reason to think the disaster at the end is the end of their troubles—it's likely things get even worse beyond this novel. It's also an American story of capitalism, of course, critical of its excesses in the strongest terms. It was condemned as socialist, communist, and whatnot, and yes, it certainly illustrates in plainest terms how the wealthy few can control the impoverished many by any number of unscrupulous but legal dirty tricks. That's part of the great sadness of this book, which goes beyond the sad (if redemptive) elements of its story. Things are better now, but not by much. Not by nearly enough—indeed, with Republicans in complete control of the US federal government now, we appear in position to see every one of the hard-won economic victories that came of the Depression era erased, solely to benefit the wealthy. The problem of mistreating the people we need to grow and harvest food remains—these workers are not only not respected for doing the hard work most Americans prefer not to, but are vilified and ostracized as a matter of class. That part of this novel is still very much a heartache. I used the word "earnestness" before—what The Grapes of Wrath is earnest about is delivering the shock of understanding reality. It's more like searing in its effect. It ends on a profound image, one of the most powerful in all earnest literature. My issue might be that I'm uncomfortable with the honesty, integrity, and dignity of this book. I feel like a phony being reduced to such terms ("dignity") and I try to laugh off the effect this book has on me. Nice choice also to pick a lyric from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." That puts it at the center of American literature where it belongs. The title was not actually Steinbeck's, by the way, but came from his first wife, Carol.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

"Testimony of Pilot" (1978)

Story by Barry Hannah not available online.

This story by Barry Hannah, whose Airships collection was all the rage in 1978 as I recall, makes an interesting contrast to "Water Liars," which is in the collection edited by Raymond Carver. For one thing, it indicates the regard for Hannah that two different stories by him appear in two of the collections I'm looking at (so far, in this exercise, that has happened only with Ann Beattie and Carver). Even more interesting are the differences between the stories—"Water Liars" is short and dense with poetic effects whereas "Testimony of Pilot" (is that a New Testament pun?) is five times its size and possesses a powerful narrative current. Basically, "Testimony" is the study of an adolescent friendship whose reverberations have potential to last a lifetime. It's full of incidental detail expertly handled, notably the high school band to which the narrator and his friend, Arden Quadberry, are so dedicated. The narrator plays percussion and Quadberry plays the saxophone. As depicted, Quadberry is by far the best player in the band, and steps up in a crisis to help the school win a competition. Later he becomes a fighter pilot. Much of the friendship—or "connection" might be the better term, as the narrator and Quadberry are not friends for most of the story—is easily reduced to stereotypes of bullies and their victims. But Hannah hangs so much interesting detail over it that it's easily forgotten. Quadberry has a fierce dignity from his first appearance, and the narrator is dealt a harsh comeuppance, going deaf shortly after he graduates high school. In fact, he was already going deaf before that. But going deaf? Who thinks of that? There was something deeply affecting to me about the characters and their connection in this story, but I'm not sure I'm entirely on board yet with Hannah. It can feel like pro forma gothic Southern business with the biblical familiarities and grotesques and such. He seems to be working self-consciously as a Southern Writer, and with all my problems with Southern culture returning again here in the 21st century, maybe that's the rub. Be that as it may, this is a good story.

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

Airships by Barry Hannah