Friday, March 31, 2017

Babel (2006)

France / USA / Mexico, 143 minutes
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writers: Guillermo Arriaga, Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Editors: Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Elle Fanning

I'm never going to knock director and cowriter Alejandro González Iñárritu for ambition. He thinks big, he dreams big, and it's always about making the big overpowering cinematic gesture, impact, weaving narrative structures, kinetic visuals, and explosive action intuitively across complex stories. Babel, as usual, has a few storylines, and even a number of separate time streams. In the end it's mostly a familiar lament about the geography of our shrinking interconnected world, with more communication but less communicating (or vice versa, I'm sure). See also the Bible story that supplies the title. Well, that's Iñárritu for you. Babel takes the guise of the "for want of a nail" tale, otherwise known as the "butterfly effect" in chaos theory. One thing leads to another and if it weren't for that one thing there wouldn't be all these others.

I've straightened Babel all out for you and I'll give you the spine of it straight, and then we can get to the details, which is where this movie is most alive and worth seeing: A wealthy Japanese man, after a big-game hunting trip, gives his Moroccan guide a highly powerful and accurate rifle as a kind of tip. The guide sells the rifle to his neighbor who needs a way to get rid of the jackals that are preying on his goats. Of the neighbor's two sons, the youngest is a natural sharpshooter, but there is sibling rivalry between the two. Out hunting jackals one day the boys want to see how far the rifle can shoot—they have been told three kilometers. Sibling rivalry happens and the youngest boy shoots at a tour bus some good distance away from their mountain perch. As it happens he plugs Cate Blanchett as Susan Jones right in the neck. She's hate-traveling with Brad Pitt as her husband Richard, trying to patch up a faltering marriage. They have the glow of Americanness about them. The situation—immediately taken as terrorism, of course—also means, back in their San Diego home, that no one can be found to take care of their kids so that their long-time trusted housekeeper can attend her son's wedding in Mexico. So she decides to take the kids with her. Crossing into Mexico with those kids and her ne'er-do-well nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) is one of the best scenes in the movie. You somehow know nothing good is going to come of it. The foreboding is overwhelming.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

"The First Day" (1992)

Read story by Edward P. Jones online.

This story by Edward P. Jones is short enough that it bears mentioning—five printed pages, which probably makes it longer than a short short, but still notably compact. It takes the form of a somewhat elliptical reminiscence, told first-person, about a first day of kindergarten. Jones is an African-American, and many of his characters are identifiably so as well, but it's a universal experience and colorblind as related here in many ways. Yet it is also specifically about African-American experience. The narrator is an older girl or more likely a young woman, remembering. It's best on the complicated relationship between a child and parent, the turbulence of which is revealed here in the first sentence: "On an otherwise unremarkable September morning, long before I learned to be ashamed of my mother ... " The reasons for that shame don't have to be spelled out, because it's part of adolescent experience, but we see the 5-year-old seeing her mother in acute ways. Her mother has to ask for help filling out forms because she can't read or write. She takes her daughter to the wrong school—she has no sense for how school systems operate. She just shows up with her child and asks abrupt questions. The story even has a kind of muzzy sentimental flavor. I found myself thinking back to my own first day of school as I read this, which was rather different, having to take a bus for the first time and such. It was raining. But the feeling of time moving irrevocably on, the feeling of being plunged into something new—new sights, new sounds, new smells, new people—are strong in this story. Her mother is also a person to be feared, we learn, capable of lashing out at things she feels are wrong. There's an intriguing description of people here that is repeated, describing them as "out of the advertisements in Ebony." It's one place where race intrudes a little on the universal experience. I suspect, in some measure, that's intentional, both the specificity and the wider common experience. It's a very American scene and setting, a public school in a large city. I think it has no particular indictments to make—it's much less about race and much more about a parent and child and the transitions of their relationship. The specificity is about the fundamentals of short story writing. The concrete details tell. Just so, the parting of the two, the clumping of her mother's footsteps as she leaves the building and goes out of sight, is just right.

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

James Baldwin gets the writer's credit in this stirring must-see documentary about Baldwin, directed by Raoul Peck. The credit is probably fair enough, even though Baldwin died in 1987—the picture is based on letters Baldwin wrote to his literary agent about a book he never finished called Remember This House. The book was to be about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom Baldwin knew personally. This film uses what exists of that unfinished manuscript and those four figures—Evers, X, and King, as well as Baldwin—as a springboard into a meditation on the state of African American progress in the United States, during Baldwin's time and after. As Baldwin himself says, with an image of him standing in what appears to be the ruins of the South Bronx in the late '70s, it's not a pretty picture. Actually, that's Samuel L. Jackson doing the voiceover, and actually, it's a remarkable job of staying out of the way of Baldwin's words. He is completely believable as Baldwin himself, in all his tangling beautiful eloquence and contradictions. The state of race relations is not a pretty picture, we are reminded as the greatest hits of the past century go swimming by onscreen: lynchings, Jim Crow signs, Montgomery, Birmingham, Watts, Rodney King, Ferguson, and many recent victims, such as Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. It's not a pretty picture and Baldwin is not at all sanguine about any immediate improvements, and this movie is here to tell us so urgently. Thirty years after his death, Baldwin looks chillingly prescient. This is a stark and compelling consideration of how far we have not come in 400 years of history in this hemisphere. It's not possible to overstate the blunt force of its images and their stories, as framed by Baldwin. Obviously, it's also a great tonic, a point of relief, from the Trump regime miasma settling in—we got through the '60s, didn't we? (didn't we?)—and because it makes the connections with clarity to so much we are seeing today, when we're willing to look. A stiff dose of reality. Trump's America is an old America, one that Baldwin knew well, perhaps better than us. Baldwin is a complicated figure, never fully at ease in his relations with, or his disaffection from, the US. But it's the kind of unease we seem to be living with on a daily basis now. He's got some helpful pointers for survival here.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"Emergency" (1991)

Read story by Denis Johnson online.

Denis Johnson's story takes place, loosely speaking, in a hospital emergency room, where the orderly and ward clerk on duty steal drugs, enter Hunter Thompson mental states, and carry on. The ward clerk is also the first-person narrator (unnamed). You feel reverberations of Ken Kesey in the setting, and of Thompson in the drug effects. The nurse on duty ("Nurse") is a better person that Nurse Ratched, but not by much. The doctors are busy and officious. The emergency room is generally slow, there's not much happening, which makes it seem more unlikely and closer to metaphorical, and that might weaken it a little. I would be surprised if this isn't based on Johnson's life experience—the hospital setting feels right in many ways. But then come emergencies that feel suspiciously like urban legends. A man shows up with a knife plunged to the hilt into his head above one eye. He says his vision is not affected but he can't make a fist. His and everyone's thought is brain damage. But the anecdote turns out to be little more than another joke about Georgie, the orderly, who is as close as this episodic story gets to a main character. He's high as a naked jaybird and hallucinating, operating on instincts which comically prove out. I liked the story a little more when it left the hospital. The events it recounts are not believable, but I hung with the suspension of disbelief, and was rewarded by indulgent images and flights that somehow work, such as coming upon a drive-in theater in a winter storm, where the movie plays to no one. In his collection that includes this story, Jesus' Son, Johnson is like the Nick Tosches of fiction writers; or maybe that should be that Tosches is the Denis Johnson of rock critics. He's erratic. He's wild. His punches often miss. But when they land they make a serious impact—life-changing, in small fragmented ways, but life-changing. With this particular story, for me, it's more the art. It's small-scale in impact, but real too. I think there's better in Jesus' Son. Yet for every cooptation of Kesey or Hunter Thompson, there's language that surpasses even what they did, with an imagination fiercer and more enveloping. Raymond Carver is another obvious source. It's the details that tell, not the lunacy. It's the getting lost, not the drugs. The hospital is there because it has to be a hospital, because of the necessity of grounding Georgie's closing declaration in something tangible. A hitchhiker they have picked up asks Georgie what he does. "I save lives," he says. It's a joke but it's also true. And it's true in many different ways—just as it's also untrue in many different ways.

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

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Oceans Apart (2005)

I came to know the Go-Betweens by way of frequenting record stores, where all clerks seemed generally and quite volubly in favor of them. I picked up a couple of the vinyl albums released toward the end of their first commercial incarnation, in the late '80s (Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane), and later let myself be steered toward the CD anthology 1978-1990, which I have never really stopped listening to. A collection of 22 songs is a strange project when there weren't actually that many hits—the Go-Betweens' high point commercially is probably "Streets of Your Town" from 16 Lovers Lane, which in 1987 made it to #30 in New Zealand and #80 in the UK. ("Finding You," from Oceans Apart, went to #17 in Australia in 2005.) For all that, it's arguable that the pop song was the very métier of songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, and greatest hits anthologies are what pop songwriters do. It was the pop song, to be precise, filtered through strains of folk, rock, punk/alternative, and, most importantly, book-reading literature. Dostoevsky, for example, makes a brief appearance on Oceans Apart. More often, it is the scenes and settings, points of view and voice, that are literary. When the Go-Betweens came back in 2000, after variously interesting solo and/or multi-collaborative flings, I kept a respectful distance (even as 1978-1990 continued to play whenever I thought of them). Then, with the outpourings after McLennan's unexpected death in 2006 at 48, I took a plunge on Oceans Apart. It's worth it, totally—this chapter in their career is as valid as the other. In many ways it is richer, deeper, and more affecting than the earlier songs, marked by maturity in the themes as well as the writing. In the period of their separate projects I noticed I had a clear preference for McLennan's work over Forster's, but on Oceans Apart—their final album, after The Friends of Rachel Worth in 2000 and Bright Yellow Bright Orange in 2003—I heard how they are greater than the sum of their parts. It was a special collaboration. The production here indulges many lush emotional points, swooning orchestrations to sweeten the moods, and it's often hot, recorded with such clarity you practically hear every brushed string and all moves toward and away from the mic. Every song is poignant and beautiful, with hooks you can't forget—hooks you know them by: the way the title phrase swells forth in "No Reason to Cry" (and the response from electric guitar), the sense of memoir in "Darlinghurst Nights," the refrain ".. don't know where I'm going, don't know where it's flowing...," a touch of Neil Diamond in "Finding You," the churning electric guitar on "Statue," the brisk and jaunty way that "Born to a Family" moves ("a family of workers ... what could I do?") and then those backup singers toward the end, and the geographic features (shades of the Chills) in "Mountains Near Dellray." Mostly the album plays as a shifting, warping, beautiful mood piece, casting spells. Sad that it was the end forever, but a really nice way to go out.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Conformist (1970)

Il conformista, Italy / France / West Germany, 111 minutes
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Writers: Alberto Moravia, Bernardo Bertolucci
Photography: Vittorio Storaro
Music: Georges Delerue
Editor: Franco Arcalli
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin, Enzo Tarascio, Dominique Sanda, Pierre Clementi

I know there's no time like the present for meditations on the sources of 20th-century fascism, what it looked like and how it behaved, yet for the most part The Conformist usually leaves me cold. Or maybe that's the director and screenwriter, Bernardo Bertolucci, who sometimes seems a bit of a Continental Ridley Scott, all outsize reputation and promise, rarely fulfilled, though many films are released. There is so much flash and sizzle to the way The Conformist is constructed that it's easy to be dazzled by its style and lose track of the story and its themes. That might be part of its point, all those glossy seductions of fascism, but the picture is also mired in a certain grainy technicolor look and restless camera and editing of the late '60s and early '70s, which itself seems a little dated and artificial. I can't always follow it, or don't want to. Maybe I just haven't been in the mood—Midnight Cowboy or Once Upon a Time in the West also have many of these trappings and I think they're fine.

In 1938, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a young man of dissolute middle-class background (father institutionalized for insanity, mother a degraded morphine addict) attempting to make a government career under the Mussolini regime in Italy. His psychology is often transparent. He is mild-mannered and dresses well. He is engaged to a silly woman of wealth, Guilia (Stefania Sandrelli), and has the kind of empty friendships and connections that lead to success. By that time in history, for some context, Mussolini had been in power over 15 years, Italy and Germany had formed a powerful strategic alliance, and, with developments in Russia, it was possible to make the argument that democracy was an idea that belonged to the past (again, shades of our own time). Clerici plans to travel to Paris for his honeymoon. His superiors pull him aside and have a mission for him on his trip: look up and reconnect with an old professor of his who fled fascist Italy many years before. This assignment is accompanied with a sidearm (with silencer) and a deeply cynical handler, Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), which clarifies its real nature.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

"The Tree of Knowledge" (1900)

Read story by Henry James online.

Just when I think I've figured out how to read Henry James, along comes a narrative that somehow stops me cold. For all its virtues—chiefly, it's funny, but also carefully constructed with its ends in sight—I found this mostly a slow-going hard-parsing affair. There's a sculptor, Morgan Mallow, known as "the Master," and his wife, his son, and his best friend, Peter Brench, who is the focus and primary point of view. The Master is highly lauded as a great talent, at least in the minds of himself and his family, but Brench does not think so. He keeps it to himself for the sake of their friendship, he genuinely likes Mallow, and also because he is in love with Mallow's wife. Not altogether the most sympathetic situation in the first place. There is some implication that the Master is neither as gifted nor as successful as he thinks himself, but his son and especially his wife are staunch supporters. Brench is godfather to the son and practically family himself. When the son decides to throw over a practical education in favor of pursuing his own talent, the rest of the household is delighted. Except for Brench, who feels it's his duty to warn him off. This leads to bruised feelings, ultimately propelling the young man to pursue his art in defiance. In many ways the story proceeds like situation comedy. Because no one speaks to anyone honestly and forthrightly, they are all husbanding their secrets. Toward the end it turns out to be the same secret all around. Relieved chuckles. First the son comes clean to Brench that he thinks his father is talentless and deluded. Later, it turns out Mrs. Mallow feels the same. They are all looking to protect the Master from the reality of his delusion. It becomes a complicated situation at that point, even as the story is ending, and requires further unpacking. Brench had thought he was sparing them all the pain, but the fact that the woman he loves was doing the same for the Master all along inevitably changes his view of her. She has been deceiving him, in a way, in much the same way he has been deceiving her, for the sake of the feelings of a deluded hack. In the end, it's unclear what Brench is going to make of it, or what he will do next. There's a suggestion he may no longer love Mrs. Mallow, but there's no suggestion the situation is going to change significantly, except they all know a little better where they stand now. Well, they all do except for the Master, who remains as beatifically self-satisfied as ever. That's a funny image, but it's a lot of work to get there.

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 17 pages

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine (Library of America)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

What Maisie Knew (1897)

Behind all the typical crosshatchings and shadings of language in this Henry James novel is something at once so homely and such an example of social realism that it's almost hard to believe he wrote it: the story of a girl who only serves as one more item to fight about between two divorced parents. It's surprisingly modern too, given that widespread acceptance of divorce would not begin to occur for the better part of another century—even maybe a little daring (or "European"). Somehow, James manages to pack some humor around a tale that is otherwise nearly appalling. It's funny and tragic and stupefyingly complex, as relations between the parents shift from fighting about who gets to have Maisie to fighting about taking her off one another's hands. Over the course of the narrative, each takes multiple lovers—indeed, at one point, former lovers begin to be involved with one another, and sometimes they have responsibility for Maisie awkwardly thrust on them. Governesses come and go, loom large, depart, return again. Maisie grows from a toddler to adolescence. She is so guarded and low-key it's hard to see the effect of all this, except that she is so guarded and low-key. We rarely see her in notable pain, but the litany of detail piles quite high, forcing us to consider, how can she not be in pain? It's impressive all the things James manages here, keeping the focus on the child's-eye view, the way cat and mouse cartoons only show the knees, shins, and shoes of grown-ups. Yet the madness swirling around her could not be more apparent, as we repeatedly see adults lying or exaggerating to the child for their own gains. It's impossible to miss how much harm and damage are being done over and over. The best here are weak, the worst unspeakable. Maisie is merely an innocent cipher. It's true James might have had more open compassion for her—as an element in this story, it's notably missing. The humor derives from the painful clarity of each adult's particular style of weakness, their vanities and repeated foibles, with all their transparent psychological sources. Ultimately these laughs, such as they are, provide no relief from the situation. But as nothing is much of a relief here—again, perhaps the problem of the missing compassion—one is grateful for the light even as the downward spiral only worsens by the page.

"interlocutor" count = 3 / 272 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

Ikiru (1952)

Japan, 143 minutes
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Photography: Asakazu Nakai
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Editor: Koichi Iwashita
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kaneko, Kyoko Seki, Miki Odagiri, Yunosuke Ito, Nobuo Nakamura

"Ikiru" is a Japanese verb that means "to live, to be alive, to exist," but somehow that translation has only occasionally been tried for the title of one of director and cowriter Akira Kurosawa's greatest movies. Perhaps Kurosawa's status as the most Westernized of Japan's famous midcentury film directors, with Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, had to be compensated with the most Japanese-sounding titles in the West—Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Kagemusha are among his most famous.

Ikiru is also something of a departure in that, as with most of Ozu's work, Kurosawa has set the action of this picture in modern-day rather than historical samurai times. Long-time Kurosawa trouper Takashi Shimura takes the dominating lead role of Kanji Watanabe, a middle-aged widower and Japanese government bureaucrat for most of his adult life, who has learned—well, figured out really, as the Japanese medical system as shown was remarkably evasive about it—that he has inoperable stomach cancer and at most a year to live. It might be Shimura's greatest role, bearing the largest burdens of a man in extremis, facing down his own death. The picture follows the arc of his coming to terms with his condition, with the last hour reserved for an unusual show of consequences.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Charles" (1948)

Read story by Shirley Jackson online.

SPOILER ALERT. "Charles" is a very short story with a twist ending in the O. Henry vein. I had it figured out on the first page, but I had read it before. I can't remember if it fooled me the first time. It might have. Wikipedia comments: "This story is a prime example of dramatic irony where many times the reader can figure out——" Ah ah ah, Wikipedia. You just might have given it away without even a spoiler alert. Between my figuring it out quickly, and Wikipedia giving it away just like that, there's probably no harm in discussing it candidly, but I'll be scrupulous just in case. It's right there online for you and it's very short. By the evidence of this, "The Lottery," and other stories by her, Shirley Jackson was often in the surprise ending business, which was very popular in short stories for much of the 20th century. Jackson's work has value beyond this entertainment aspect, and reasons can be glimpsed here, though this story is mostly focused on its surprise business. Jackson is really good at midcentury American suburbia with malevolent overtones. "Charles" turns on a young couple sending their first-born off to kindergarten and dealing with what comes of it. There are profound moments in terms of child development and the bemusement and wonder of the parents. At a length of only five printed pages, this story verges on being a "short short." I understand it gets hard making these distinctions—short short and short stories, novellas, novelettes, etc.—and maybe it's not even worth it. But they seem to have some shadings by size. A short short (three printed pages max and as short as two sentences) almost always has a twist or multiple twists. Otherwise we're in the realm of prose poetry and frankly I don't want to go there. "Charles" is long enough to establish a narrative sequence, even though it deliberately dances around a key plot point that is saved for a "reveal" (that new noun). It's not purely a stunt, as Jackson's crisp jokey rhythms and suburban detail are worth the quick ride—her characters can be real in surprising ways. Still, it's mainly a stunt, or at best occupying the form of a stunt. "The Lottery" is a better story, but mostly because it's longer and thus there is more of Jackson's writing. It's also a stunt. But both are also more than that.

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

Get Out (2017)

Like most thrillers or horror movies, the first half of Get Out—when the sources of tension are not yet clear, and all you know is there are intriguing and unsettling things to worry about—is better than the second half, when all unlikely ramifications must play out. Get Out also indulges today's too easy bent toward super-heroics to connect plot dots. Catherine Keener gets the honors here for powers beyond our mortal ken. Still, these weaknesses are a matter of the film's chosen form as much as anything. As a so-called comedy / horror movie, nervous laughter is what it's all about. Director and writer Jordan Peele, who I don't otherwise know, established himself first as a comic actor. This is his first directing job though not his first screenplay and it's solid, its chief strength being the peek it provides into the simmering anxieties of African-Americans attempting the post-racial thing when the only people around are white. The nightmare fantasy behind the friendly show: these smiling faces ultra-privileged whites still want to hold blacks in bondage as slaves and secretly that's exactly what they're doing. Daniel Kaluuya is Chris Washington, a young black man. Allison Williams is Rose Armitage, his white girlfriend. Rose is taking Chris home to meet her family for the first time, though she's neglected to mention to them that he's black. That wouldn't be post-racial. Understandably, that's cause for concern for Chris. More troubles: on the drive to the country estate, they accidentally hit and kill a deer, though it doesn't die right away, which shifts the picture in an instant to unpleasant realms. When the responding policeman asks for Chris's ID, Rose kicks up a stink. He wasn't driving, she says, and has no obligation to show his ID. When Chris meets the family these problems only get worse. The father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), turns unnaturally slinky and hep when he meets Chris. He wants to know how long this "thang" with his daughter has been going on. Later he tells Chris he would have voted for a third term for Barack Obama if he could have. It's one cringing moment after another, which is only complicated by the fact that all the Armitages' servants are black, and furthermore, they're acting kind of peculiar. Catherine Keener is Missy Armitage, Rose's mother and a psychiatrist who specializes in hypnosis therapy. Dean is a neurosurgeon. But all is not as it appears in this lush exurban enclave. Something is not right. That's what the movie is about and those are the scary parts, and they are better left to be discovered on your own. It's worth seeing, especially for the insights on black anxieties, as far as they go.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Going Into the City (2015)

From the reviews, long-time Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau's memoir sounded like it might be some sort of sexual tell-all, but it's actually more sedate than that. Though a vague tone of lasciviousness hangs like a miasma over certain paragraphs and sentences, and now and then it is explicitly about sex, that aspect of it was way overstated. Christgau himself has claimed more than once, inside and outside of the book, that much of the project is about reclaiming the validity, nay the very utility, of monogamy, even as it explores what a memoir is at all. Those aspects—monogamy, and the memoir as artifact—are more the reasons for this book's existence than anything about a) the Village Voice, b) celebrity gossip, c) rock criticism theory, or d) specific rock critics (with a few exceptions, notably Ellen Willis). It is packed full of opinions, which is only natural, but those opinions range far afield of the rock scene as such. Indeed, the great pleasure I got out of this—beyond Christgau's typically etched language, as he remains as always a pleasure to read—was in his ruminations on literature and film. Crime and Punishment, Jules and Jim, Sister Carrie, and Marquee Moon, among a good many others, get equally thoughtful treatment here. Many of the usual problems of memoirs occur, however, such as obvious gaps and elisions. If I'm going to second-guess Christgau, like all the other reviewers, I wish he would have stayed closer to the Joycean spirit of the subtitle ("Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man") and ended the story in his mid-20s, say with the publication of "Beth Ann and Macrobioticism" in 1965. There could have been more about his college career and intellectual awakening, which is where it started to get a little more sketchy and I thought I was missing things. But maybe Christgau needed to go beyond that for the sake of a book proposal or because he thought it made a better book. It's his book, so it's his choice. But in this story, once Christgau is established as a writer, the gaps only become more and more obvious. He deliberately lands on isolated points in his life and leaves out others. It's not as if the anecdotes he offers aren't compulsively readable—how he got his calling card as the "Dean" of American rock critics, along with scenes from his work at the Voice, his life in New York, his ridiculously happy marriage to Carola Dibbell, his parenting and his daughter. No doubt they are main attraction for many who wanted to read a Christgau memoir. So fair enough. I also appreciate that he consciously studied the literary form of the memoir so closely as part of undertaking this. For fans mainly.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Over and Thru the Night (1980-1987)

Steve Fisk is better known as a producer and foundational figure in the Pacific Northwest grunge moment. His credits include Nirvana, Soundgarden, the Screaming Trees, Low, the Wedding Present, Negativland, Boss Hog, and, more recently, Car Seat Headrest, among many others. By the evidence of this album, his own interests may lie more in the direction of ambient musique concrete, combining everything that is available to anyone to hear. Or, as he puts it, "Copyright infringement is still your best entertainment value. More noise please." As if to make the point, this compilation of fragments and long concatenations, released in 1993, casually usurps some of the most fiercely protected copyright golden calves in existence, namely the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival (and the Dallas TV show too, though no sign of Led Zeppelin and probably too early to be tweaking Prince). In some ways it works like a comedy album, in that the spoken word fragments and their repetitions often dominate, and memorably so. "Can't somebody out there who knows the words to the song call in and tell 'em to us?" a radio announcer implores. "I don't deserve to live," says a Deputy Dawg voice in the short framing tracks at start and end, "I Wish I Were Dead," parts 1 and 2, which I kept hearing alternately as "I've lost the will to live." "Government Figures," a relative shorty at 1:36, features a voice that sounds like Lionel Barrymore running down statistics about life expectancies. I have grown to wait for a certain particularly satisfying vocal "but" on which the track turns. That's shorter stuff. Some of these tracks are very long too. Potentially they could have been broken up into constituent parts, but enough has grown on me with this album that I trust Fisk's sense for keeping some elements together and others separate. The longest track, "You Used Me," clocks in at nearly 13 minutes, defers in substantial passages to CCR's "Keep on Chooglin'," and right in the middle opens to a gray barrage of floating white noise, like an old-fashioned empty TV channel, that briefly somehow offers a kind of unmediated ecstasy, if you're in the right mood. (To get there, let me hasten to add, you may have to listen to it a few times. You know how I feel about that advice, but there it is.) Much of the found speech is from radio and TV, with potentially multiple sources in Dallas, which I don't know, but there are clues here. My favorite track, and the one by which I suspect you can judge whether or not this is for you (hey, it's even on Napster), is the six-minute "Lying in Texas," which comes late in the album and is likely from Dallas. A whirring buzz saw accompanies an unearthly conversation between a man and a woman about a deception, a hoax, played on the woman. The man participated in it but now he is coming clean with her. The woman can't believe what she is hearing and audibly starts to fall apart. The man is cool, cruel, deadly unimpassioned. Suddenly a long break, an open stop of several seconds which produces anxiety like tripping and almost falling. Then moody keyboard swirls play and now the voices run backwards, as if whipped in high winds. An ineffable sadness overwhelms it. The musical figure plays again, and again. J.R. Ewing's name clarifies, and repeats. The whole thing plays like '40s noir to me, with dark currents and mystery. I love it the most and the whole album is pretty good that way too.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Pickpocket (1959)

France, 75 minutes
Director/writer: Robert Bresson
Photography: Leonce-Henri Burel
Music: J.B. Lulli
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Models: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Cesar Gattegno, Pierre Leymarie, Jean Pelegri, Pierre Etaix, Kassagi, Dolly Scal

All movies by director and writer Robert Bresson are at least a little odd—austere, slow-moving affairs, marked by confounding editing rhythms and unnatural performances from stunningly beautiful people. In line with the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, I probably like Pickpocket second-best of all his movies, after Au Hasard Balthazar. It attempts to do a few things at once: retell Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment story, demonstrate the grace and practical realities of pickpocketing (the movie was actually banned for a time in Finland as too instructive), and, as ever from the deeply spiritual Roman Catholic filmmaker, ask us to ponder the eternal mystery of living. The question Bresson forever pursues is how to show the movements of the soul. I have mixed feelings about that, but I don't doubt his sincerity, for all the obvious potential for pretension and all he may be held responsible for.

Frankly, in Balthazar, I'm more interested in the donkey, and in Pickpocket, I'm more interested in the tricks of the deft criminal trade. Pickpocket is not exactly documentary, and not really that informative either (Finland notwithstanding). But it's typically clinical, with appropriate numerous close-ups on hands in action. As criminal skills go, pickpocketing is arguably one of the most theatrical, involving close work with blind hands and fingers and a magician's ability to distract coupled with a skill for going still in a crowd to become invisible. I've seen footage of stage magicians picking pockets and removing watches and belts from apparently oblivious audience volunteers. Among other things, Pickpocket validates that incredible spectacle with examples of intricate wallet lifting (solo and in teams) and even watches removed from wrists with their owners unaware.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

"The Devil and Tom Walker" (1824)

Read story by Washington Irving online.

Washington Irving's tale is a 19th-century American update on the Faust story. It's a good story structure, a classic, and Irving makes the most of it. It starts with buried pirate treasure in the deepest Massachusetts forest, and then introduces Tom Walker and his wife, both bitter misers. They fight constantly, and one is always trying to cheat the other out of shares in their meager wealth. In the woods, Tom Walker happens to encounter Old Scratch himself, who offers knowledge of the buried treasure in exchange for the usual: one (1) immortal soul. Tom Walker says he'll have to think about that. It's such a momentous offer that he lets his wife in on it, who scolds him for not accepting it right away and then immediately leaves for the woods to cut her own deal. She's never heard from again, except later, when Tom Walker sees her apron hanging from a high branch in a tree, guarded by a large vulture. When he climbs up to recover it he finds only a heart and liver bundled into it. This is probably my favorite part of the story—dark and spooky, reminiscent of scenes from The Blair Witch Project or the more recent The Witch. Her absence is final. Nothing is heard from her again. Time passes, and Tom Walker gets to thinking about that buried treasure again. He returns to the woods, looking for the devil, who finally after some time reappears. They bargain and hash it out, in somewhat vague terms. Eventually they agree that Tom Walker will do very well as a banker—or "usurer," their preferred term. Tom Walker moves to Boston and indeed does very well. His duties: "extort bonds, foreclose mortgages, drive the merchant to bankruptcy." Tom Walker attacks with relish and before long he is as rich as he ever could dream. Now comes the time for second thoughts and attempts to get out of the contract. Foolish mortal. All his plotting and scheming come to nothing, of course, except spoiling the time left to him. In the end the devil takes his due, in fairly dramatic fashion. Washington Irving is one of those early American writers I haven't actually read much, and this story was new to me. It comes from the collection Tales of a Traveller. His most famous stories, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," come from a collection of a few years earlier. My main concern with some of these early American writers I've neglected (James Fennimore Cooper is another) is that the language will be deadly dull and/or tricky to unpack, but that's not the case here at all. "The Devil and Tom Walker" is quite well done, though it starts slow on a lengthy description of the woods. Once we get to Tom Walker and his wife, it clips right along.

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

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Native Son (1940)

Native Son is a remarkable American novel, with Richard Wright mixing up two oppositional elements. The first is a novel of social realism, by one more 20th-century writer influenced by John Dos Passos, reminiscent of, say, The Grapes of Wrath for fitting its narrative into the stream of great American stories. The context is Chicago, decades after the Civil War and the great postwar migration to the cities of the North. Wright expertly details the realities of life in Chicago, the de facto racism which Northerners have always specialized in, using the blunt force weapon of the police (and the National Guard as deemed necessary ... watch Donald Trump on this one) to intimidate, ghettoize, and segregate Negroes and whites. Within this nicely worked out context, however (including lucid observations on how "Communist" efforts toward change fit into the social and political milieu), Wright has inserted phantasms of horror: huge rats infesting tenement apartments, unimaginable poverty and violence, and finally a crime that goes ludicrously over the top. This is a great novel, a really great novel, with narrative currents like a flooding river. The first of its three long sections (named "Fear," "Flight," and "Fate") is best for the shock and awe impact Wright pulls off here, over a hundred pages uninterrupted even by line breaks, unfolding unbelievable and horrific events of a single day. Bigger Thomas, our hero—bearing one of the great names in American literature—commits the worst crime possible for a black man, the murder of a white woman. (The murder of his girlfriend Bessie is actually much more heinous, but Wright obviously knows black on black crime holds little interest for white majorities.) Not to go white on you with the comparison, but this is some clear forerunner to Eminem's "Kim," a fantasy adventure that travels deep into the interior of a brooding vengeful mind, where what we experience is shocking in a casual, almost light-hearted way even as it throws a spotlight on our worst taboos and sometimes seems to be laughing about them. Bigger Thomas is no thug, he is one of the most complicated characters in American literature, probing at the perceived limits of assimilation, racism, American justice, and the soul of a human being. Indeed, Thomas's crime is so terrible, so extreme, it is hard to have sympathy for him. But it's not hard to understand him. One of my great struggles with Native Son is how exactly to take Thomas. This novel cries to be read more than ever. Fresh and powerful and still amazing.

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

Thursday, March 02, 2017

"The Ransom of Red Chief" (1907)

Read story by O. Henry online.

O. Henry's comical kidnapping story has less of a twist ending and more of a punchline to a joke and there should probably be a rimshot too, with a sad horn. In that way it's not as typical for Henry as, say, "The Gift of the Magi." But it seems typical enough for its time, reminiscent of the wry American work of Mark Twain or Booth Tarkington. It features two would-be professional criminals: Sam, the first-person narrator, and Bill, his sidekick, who is more or less the straight man. They are in Alabama and decide to kidnap a boy to raise some quick and easy money. The story predates by decades the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby, which took a lot of the fun out of such crimes. It's also way ahead of the kind of legendary desperate outlaws who showed up in the Depression years, hunted by the FBI, although Jesse James and other cowboy bandits were in Henry's recent past then. It's marked by a kind of slangy criminal lingo that Damon Runyon and, even later, Nelson Algren would use just as extensively. I read this in junior high or maybe even grade school, and it surprises me a little that anyone thought kids that age would get something out of it. Maybe because it features a boy of about that age? Anyway, Sam and Bill can't control him—Bill especially is regularly made a victim by the boy. Let's say it doesn't seem very realistic and leave it at that, especially in this era of elaborate ultraviolence. I guess you could say it's an antecedent to the Home Alone movies. I actually found it charming and comical, opting for conscious suspension of disbelief. It's funny what the kid gets away with and the repetitions with Bill as the eternal victim are pretty good too, some very neat ba-da-bings. In my childhood travels with O. Henry it seemed like guessing the twist was all part of the fun and the challenge. But what surprised me most about this story is how well it's done, a frothy little delight with no regrets, and all elements played well.

By the way, I found this story in a top 10 list of most popular Library of America Story of the Week selections, which came in an email newsletter. Story of the Week has been a worthy project of five years or more now. I decided to add all 10 to the stories from the three anthologies that are providing the bulk of my long short story project. Then I felt like even more needed to be added—no Chekhov anywhere? that didn't seem right for a look at short stories—so I sprinkled in a few more (many cherry-picked from the upper realms of this great list of most-anthologized stories), to get to a grand total of 125. This might not seem like a particularly round number but it's actually a very good one: five cubed, which means it produces most satisfying numbers when I go to measure my progress. For example, with this story, I am now exactly 41.6% through this project. Only 58.4% to go!

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