Sunday, July 30, 2017

"Cruel and Barbarous Treatment" (1939)

Story by Mary McCarthy not available online.

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

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

Friday, July 28, 2017

Force Majeure (2014)

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

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

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

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"The Necklace" (1884)

Read story by Guy de Maupassant online.

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

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant

Monday, July 24, 2017

Baby Driver (2017)

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

Sunday, July 23, 2017

"Paste" (1899)

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

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 17 pages

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

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Know Your Product (1977-1978)

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

"The Outstation" (1924)

Story by W. Somerset Maugham not available online.

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

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Close-Up (1990)

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

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

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"Shiloh" (1982)

Read story by Bobbie Ann Mason online.

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Beguiled (2017)

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

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Angle of Repose (1971)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)

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

Thursday, July 06, 2017

"Marriage a la Mode" (1921)

Read story by Katherine Mansfield online.

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

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

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Law & Order, s2 (1991-1992)

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

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

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Catch-22 (1961)

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

In case it's not at the library.