Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Innocence" (1948)

Story by Sean O'Faolain not available online.

Sean O'Faolain is another writer in these anthologies that I'm basically getting my introduction to now. I barely even know the name, but Wikipedia informs he was Irish (duh), primarily a short story writer, and fairly prolific. A man of letters—he also wrote criticism, biography, novels, and more. The language in this story is beautiful and seductive, but the story—which is very short, barely five printed pages—is kind of a labored joke about a boy's misunderstanding of the word "adultery." It's also saturated in Catholic culture. The misunderstanding occurs in a confessional. The scene is actually pretty funny. The priest is old and doddering. At first he mistakes his confessor for a girl, which suggests the first-person narrator's youth at the time of the incident—or his underdevelopment, because his voice might have still been high. The narrator is recounting the story as an adult many years later, a full-grown man with a son of his own, looking back through the haze of memory, quite evidently casting a glow on it. It's also a little too cute about withholding the term in question ("adultery"), which instantly clarifies all the mystifying confusion. But it wouldn't have been as funny that way. Oops, I gave it away. Well, it's an odd duck at any rate, much closer to memoir. I have to wonder if the "innocence" of the title is perhaps not a little the narrator's own still. The revelation appears to be that the Catholic church is fallible despite its claims. What he's most worried about now is what it will do to his son's psyche when he comes to the realization in his turn. It's something like the way we think about breaking it to kids that Santa Claus is all a hoax. So maybe it's me, after all, and not the narrator, who is the real innocent around here. Still, the whole little thing strikes me as a bit of a stunt. It's also way too Catholic for my taste. But my vague sense of O'Faolain's reputation (set permanently as Irish, likely in the long shadow of James Joyce), and especially the wonderful ease and expressiveness of the language here, make me think he might be worth looking into further one of these days.

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

Monday, September 25, 2017

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Ingrid Goes West draws from the well of the obsessed sociopathic stalker thriller, most notably Single White Female, so obviously in fact that that movie is name-checked along the way. Director Matt Spicer and cowriter David Branson Smith attack the problem creatively, with dashes of '80s urban nightmares like After Hours and Desperately Seeking Susan even as it takes on easy targets like the beautiful shallowness of Los Angeles culture and especially the foibles of social media. In fact, Ingrid Goes West seems to be hanging much of its marketing cap more or less on its critique of now-comic now-horrific empty social media life. But the usual practical problems with internet and computer movies rear up quickly. Computer interfacing still doesn't lend itself well to movie visuals. In this case, the relentlessness of social media feeds is represented by scenes of glazed browsing, sequential posts, and murmuring voiceovers for comment threads that unite and diverge. I have a policy to disregard any pop songs which literally use the words "hashtag" or "emoji." Good thing for this movie it's not a pop song. The point is we quickly get the point. Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza, doing fine) is lonely, alienated, wrong in the head, and finds her only outlet online: connecting is connection and connection is everything. Her mother has died recently, leaving her an inheritance somewhere shy of six figures. She has had problems stalking people in the past. Now she has some more, setting her sights on Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a freelance photographer and part-time poseur (or is that freelance poseur and part-time photographer?), who does under-the-table product placement on Instagram. Ingrid operates for most of the movie in a gray area where it's not clear whether she's monster or hapless victim of society somehow, but by any code she's plainly not behaving herself, desperately conning and manipulating her way into a friendship she expects will bring her this fulfillment she forever seeks. After about the first third, in which she is merely creepy, Ingrid relaxes into her new life. One of the sad points is how close she is to having the life she wants if she could just be genuine with the people falling in her orbit. For the most part they're a pretty good bunch, if a little soft-headed in obvious Los Angeles caricatured ways (screenwriting ambitions, physical fitness and health food crazes, etc.). The truth is Ingrid doesn't deserve them, not even Taylor, but we're kind of on Ingrid's side anyway. She actually lucks into a pretty good boyfriend, Dan (O'Shea Jackson Jr), though she can't seem to see him that way. For her, he's an ally in her con, and if he can just keep his mouth shut everything will be great. There are only so many places a story like this can go, and Ingrid Goes West, having little other choice, goes in one of them. The twists and turns are still often surprising, especially once Taylor's wastrel brother Nicky shows up (Billy Magnussen, stealing the show most of the rest of the way). Ingrid Goes West is tense and funny by turns, always interesting, and turns into a pretty good thriller. It's not as insightful on social media as it thinks (let alone mental illness), but it's probably more savvy about moving a plot forward than you might.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

"My Oedipus Complex" (1950)

Story by Frank O'Connor not available online.

On Wikipedia they are selling this story as "perhaps [Frank O'Connor's] most popular." Published originally in the New Yorker, it bears the unmistakable tang of that magazine's midcentury time—witty, urbane, and often actually funny. It's a reminiscence by a man named Larry of his father's homecoming after serving in World War I. Here's some of that New Yorker tang now: "The war was the most peaceful period of my life." I'm not sure what my snarking is about exactly—one of the best traditions of the New Yorker is some of the greatest writing and writers of its times. And I was entertained by this story. It was just I kept feeling it could have been written by Ring Lardner, J.D. Salinger, or James Thurber. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but a certain sameness to them was revealed here, with the dry distance and overweening wit. I don't otherwise know O'Connor at all, so perhaps I'm not being fair to him either. The story in practical terms is like an illustrative sketch of the Freudian term under consideration. The most peaceful time in Larry's life included rising early and finishing in bed with his mother, having drowsy conversations before breakfast. The reason his mother gives him for sleeping in separate beds and rooms at night is that it's healthier. Larry is thus understandably baffled by his father sleeping with his mother on his return, after a long absence during the war. Larry thinks it's selfish, and even worse, reckless, to sleep with her. He is endangering her. At one point in the story Larry announces to them both that he plans on marrying his mother when he grows up. He is even more confused when they react as if he's told a joke. This story doesn't just remind me generally of Ring Lardner, but even more specifically of a story by Lardner in this same collection edited by Robert Penn Warren. "Liberty Hall" is also carefully, perhaps even intricately, structured, even if the structure turns out to be largely in the form of a joke. The punchline part of "My Oedipus Complex" involves the arrival of a new brother for Larry, Sonny, and the effect it has on the marital bed Larry has long since quitted. An Oedipus complex cuts all different ways, as this story elegantly illustrates, with Larry and his father closing ranks as allies. It's almost touching really, and funny too.

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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Red (2012)

Taylor Swift is a supremely poised figure of popular culture. We've seen that the least shred of temper or celebrity self-involvement on her part, as in her new single "Look What You Made Me Do," yields barrels of anguish and bickering from fans and celebrity journalists. My first, admittedly snap judgment of her—that is, loathing—was based on a few impressions in the late 2000s, when I couldn't turn away fast enough from her songs on the radio in the car, driving back and forth to work and for groceries and such. In fairness, I couldn't turn away fast enough from most of the songs on the radio. Just on the surface, in the five to 20 seconds it took me to recognize things, there was something putting me off almost reflexively.

It was Swift's smug 2009 #2 hit "You Belong With Me" that was the main culprit for me in terms of her songs, but "Our Song," "Fifteen," and others also accounted for many quick exits from the premises. At a certain point it became her voice itself that provided the cue, but she was hardly the only one. The voice of one of her boyfriends, John Mayer, was often responsible for my changing the station too, along with many others. Indeed, at the time I was certain there was an unusually higher percentage of dreck than usual on pop music radio. Yes, certainly part of that was my own aging, as I was entering my 50s. But it was also exhaustion with a chapter of popular culture thoroughly saturated by then with the rapacious lottery values of the Bush/Cheney era. Hip hop generally remained a bright light, with steadily growing influence, but beyond that was beyond sad. Country music with its patriotic airs and politically correct requirements (respecting all public displays of the Confederate flag) was unlistenable even by 2003. That includes the Dixie Chicks. By 2007, certain strains of pop music were ailing badly as well—the Bush/Cheney values were now filtered through the athletic faux operatics of American Idol, the single worst thing I've seen happen to pop music.

Taylor Swift, who started in country music with a wheedling self-absorbed whimper, neatly straddled a lot of this—as a country singer she already sounded like a pop star, and as a pop singer she sounded country—and she embodied everything that was wrong. These judgments seemed to me verifiable and continually verified from the brief and random car surveys I conducted. I was sure I was living through one of the worst times ever for pop music on the radio. I still consider it a very bad period, but as it hasn't become much better in the years since I have to conclude that my judgments are now well out of step. Where I'm coming from.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Leonard Cohen: Live in London (2009)

USA, 157 minutes, documentary
Director: Edward Sanders

Concert films are a breed of documentary unto themselves and the fact is I just don't look at that many. Maybe I've seen enough live shows that I know a movie of one is always a completely different experience. Or maybe I've seen enough bad shows that I forget (again) the magic of the good ones, which concert films can sometimes capture (rationally you would already assume it's a good show if it's getting the film treatment). The concert movies I like—Stop Making Sense, say—are often structured and filmic and not very much like seeing a concert. If they're rambling like a concert can be—The Last Waltz, say (understanding I'm likely in a minority in my indifference to that movie)—they're often even duller than concerts can be. At least in the movies we're spared the tedium of teardowns and setups. But paradoxically teardowns and setups count among the most common elements of the concert experience. Which only underlines how something essential about the actual physical presence is always missing from movie versions.

In any event, Leonard Cohen: Live in London is not cinematic, at all—the director is no one particularly in the movie business, and while the credits emphasize Roscoe Beck's role as musical director there is not a cinematographer credit on Repeat: No cinematographer credit. Instead, "camera" is folded in with "electrical department." This product is also, while I'm on the caveats, associated with a CD release. It had no theatrical release of its own. So technically it's not a movie, it's a video, which only makes sense on ridiculous marketing levels. I would love to see it on a big screen. What's most remarkable about this Leonard Cohen performance from the summer of 2008 in London is how generous and satisfying it is. Cohen is the logical place to put the credit.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1953)

Read story by Flannery O'Connor online.

Flannery O'Connor's story is a hard gut punch, certainly the first time. After that you go back to dissect and figure out how it was done. The central problem and conflict are right there in the first paragraph, a fact perhaps as improbable as it is amazing. Even more amazing is the smooth way O'Connor pulls it off. A family's grandmother is an out-of-touch barnacle on the hull. Their ship is sinking, though we don't know why. We only know the mother and father are in a big hurry to travel from Georgia to Florida, although they are pretending it's a family vacation. There are two kids and an infant, the stressed-out parents, and the grandmother, who all things considered would rather be traveling to East Tennessee. She is an exasperating character, a kind of Lucille Ball figure oblivious to the worries of others or the reality around her, and attempting to manipulate all things her way. At the same time she's not wholly an unsympathetic person. If I were in her position I'd want to know more about why they're doing the things they're doing too. She doesn't deserve the fate she inadvertently forces—though even in the worst moments of their ultimate predicament she still doesn't seem to grasp the gravity of the situation, which leaves one less sympathetic. As big-time bad guys go, "The Misfit" is a lulu, starting with the moniker (no relation to the Arthur Miller story, which came later). Once he's squatting down in front of the family holding court, it's his show in every way, and all you want to do is quote him: "I found out the crime don't matter," he says. "You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it." Or: "I call myself the Misfit because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment." Or (my favorite): "Lady, there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip." He's the kind of character people make whole books about, when O'Connor is probably the one who has it right: stick him in a short story and overflow it with bitter bilge until it leaves a taste in the mouth. Among other things, a scene of a man putting on a shirt could well be one of the saddest, most pitiful, and horrifying things you have ever seen.

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Broken Wings" (1900)

If it feels like we've been here before with Henry James, I think that's because we have: at the crucible of the choice between a life of love, warmth, and happiness, or a life of the solitude of creative work. It's a brooding story with long paragraphs. The heroes are Stuart Straith and Mrs. Harvey. She is an accomplished writer, and he is an accomplished painter. So it goes. They are meeting by random at a social occasion. They share a past—for 10 years they were close to marrying. But, well, the work—hang it all, the work. You really feel James put his heart into these situations, no doubt because as a lifelong bachelor he saw himself in them. People now tend to assume James was gay, or otherwise closeted, but as far as I know there is no Clyde Tolson companion figure shadowing him, let alone a formal life partner. James was at the work. I'm not making light of it. I respect his work ethic. This story is short enough to be a short story, but long enough to break into five sections with Roman numerals, with separate scenes in time and space. The social occasion, a party, is where these two reconnect, tentatively. It's a kind of dance they go through, seem resigned to, of advance and withdraw. They respect one another. They understand one another. In spite of which they must be apart, because—the work. In the third section they are seeing one another, bargaining within themselves as much as with each other. They confide their sideline means of income. Now we start to get the sense they may be accomplished as artists but stretching to make ends meet. Their sympathies for one another go deeper, as do ours for them. They are wonderfully tender and vulnerable with these disclosures. They have their struggles. Stuart's work doesn't seem to sell well, he has such a lot of it around his studio. But Mrs. Harvey pays him the compliment of a visit and abundant admiration for his work. In the fifth and last section, Mrs. Harvey lets Stuart visit her in her home, after some resistance. They are coming to recognize each other, perhaps imperfectly, even as they begin to realize they are alone in the world with their dreams. Who can't identify with that?

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 19 pages ("interlocutress")

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Night and the City (1950)

UK / USA, 96 minutes
Director: Jules Dassin
Writers: Jo Eisinger, Gerald Kersh, Austin Dempster, William E. Watts
Photography: Mutz Greenbaum
Music: Franz Waxman (USA), Benjamin Frankel (UK)
Editors: Nick DeMaggio, Sidney Stone
Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Francis L. Sullivan, Hugh Marlowe, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko

Midcentury was approximately the full ripening of American film noir, that mystifying quasi-genre label that was first applied (obviously) by the French, to Hollywood movies in which black dominates white in the primitive color schema and badness dominates goodness in the narrative. Many noirs are low-budget B-movies, typical for the time, relying on basics of darkened soundstages and often talky two-shot dialogue to keep costs down. The problem now is that this general term "film noir" can be made to fit movies from Citizen Kane to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe the charm is the maddening vaporous attempt to pin it down. Like pornography you know it when you see it. Night and the City, one of the great noirs or certainly one of my favorites, has many of the familiar markers: jazzy soundtrack, crazy-angled shots, black shapes dominating the frames, a preoccupation with lowlifes and crime, and perhaps the key ingredient, desperation as the air the characters breathe. It's classic noir in that the story is packed full of betrayals, treacheries nested inside treacheries. Yes, it's a woman, but Helen Nosseross (Googie Withers) is hardly the usual femme fatale. She ends up impaled on her own betrayals—but she's not the only or even the chief betrayer in all the great gobs of bad faith on trade here.

In other ways, Night and the City is unusual. It's set in London, which despite its famous gloom is a little too tallyho for noir, compared with the Southern California scenes of transplanted Midwesterners we're more used to. Director Jules Dassin, a Connecticut native who ended up in New York City, was a pioneer and prime mover of noir, with The Naked City and others already to his credit. But in 1950 he was blacklisted for belonging to the Communist Party in the 1930s. Night and the City was his last Hollywood film, and even at that he was pulled off after the shooting was finished. He had nothing to do with editing or postproduction. Because of requirements of the US and worldwide markets at the time, the result, weirdly, was more or less two separate movies, with separate soundtracks and numerous differences in editing. Full disclosure: I only know the US version.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"The Things They Carried" (1986)

Read story by Tim O'Brien online.

Tim O'Brien's story was evidently conceived as the first story in a cycle of stories going by the same name, The Things They Carried, published in 1990. Wikipedia calls it a novel, but this story reads more like a stand-alone than, for example, Dorothy Allison's "River of Names," which is also from the collection edited by Tobias Wolff. At the same time, O'Brien's story is sounding big themes, suitable for later enlargement. The art of this particular story is that it works pretty well either way—as a story, or as an overture to a novel. Literally the objects of the title are scrutinized. The small outfit of American soldiers on patrol duty in Vietnam is described as carrying rifles, radios, food, camping equipment, and other necessary (and unnecessary) items. They all carry peculiar keepsakes, letters from home and such. As a group, they "carried themselves with poise." And they carry internal burdens. The stand-alone narrative—which might well be developed further in a larger novel—is about a soldier killed by a sniper while the band is on patrol. It is a shocking incident for all, and a crisis for the leader, 24-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. They respond in ways we've been trained to expect by Vietnam War stories, in this case by burning down a village. It's good powerful stuff, delivered with a sure grim tone and a lot of insight into private and personal pains. If they sometimes feel like clichés now, that's not exactly O'Brien's faults. He was among the first to use them with Going After Cacciato in 1978, before they were clichés. O'Brien feels a little in the literary war lineage of Ernest Hemingway and Normal Mailer. Cacciato was ripe with literary conceit, saturated through with O'Brien's remarkable eye for the Vietnam War experience. We know these stories so well now it's easy to miss the precision of the execution. I have a strong hunch, for example—not knowing the full-length Things They Carried—that our Lieutenant Cross is a candidate for fragging. Certainly more than one of the characters we meet in this story, not just the one killed here, will come to a sad wartime end. I'm not averse to reading more. The story is fine. But I find myself orienting the same way I do with any genre literature. On certain obvious levels you're never going to be surprised.

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

Since approximately Saving Private Ryan, big-name directors taking turns at World War II shows has become a bit of a rite of passage (so make that since the 50th anniversary of D-Day). A partial list would include Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor), Roman Polanski (The Pianist), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), and Robert Zemeckis (Allied). Clint Eastwood made two in one year (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima) and even John Woo made one (Windtalkers). Still, it was surprising to me that director and writer Christopher Nolan had any interest in the subject, given the indie / superhero bent of his career. But apparently he has been nursing a screenplay for some 25 years. In many ways it shows. Dunkirk is full of a big bushel basket of ambitious everything—blood, sweat, tears, maybe one or two kitchen sinks—but it's missing one thing: narrative clarity. With all the Dark Knight business he retailed for years it might be easy to forget that Nolan is a British citizen. That's evident here, and he is obviously stirred by the British effort at Dunkirk. He pretty much assumes we care as much as he does, and that's where he's starting from. If you don't know much about Dunkirk the historical event and key battle of World War II—which I didn't, lazybones me, assuming the movie would fill me in—then you might find yourself somewhat at sea like all the imperiled people in the movie. It also doesn't help that Dunkirk is treated like one of those things so big it can only be told with the stories of multiple otherwise unconnected people. I never felt like I 100% grasped everything I was looking at—who these people were, what exactly was happening to them specifically, and what happened to my compassion. The battle scenes are tremendous, yes, particularly the aerial engagements, but tremendous battle scenes are not enough. The deaths can be horrible and there were touching displays of human kindness, but horrible deaths and touching human kindness are also not enough. The notable lack of clarity in Dunkirk, in fact, was unexpected partly because I thought one of the few worthwhile points about the otherwise incoherent mess of Interstellar was Nolan's ability to visually communicate experiences of relativity without getting that confusing. I was dubious about Dunkirk from the start, but when word of mouth got to me that it was Nolan's masterpiece I thought I had to take a look. As far as I'm concerned, The Dark Knight and then Memento are still the ones by him to beat. As World War II movies go, I think I even like Allied better, though it's not nearly as self-serious.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (1772)

Slave narratives seem to vary quite a bit by size. This one is relatively short, less than 40 printed pages, but some can run to hundreds of pages. They also date all the way back to the 18th century (or further?), and North America is only one part of the picture in the larger slave trade. James Albert (as he is usually called in this narrative, a first-person memoir dictated orally) finishes his days in England, the land he dreamed of all his life, or at least after his life changed radically with his kidnapping. A couple of points are hard to miss. First, the condescension of even the kindest white people and the acceptance of blacks only in the lowest social positions. We know now that these are matters of social psychology, self-reinforcing belief systems and so forth, but still it's striking how deeply accepted it is. The good old days! Make America great again! And then, second, all the risk African Americans lived with, day to day. James Albert is carried away from his home in Africa at about the age of 15, and frequently robbed and swindled by shady unscrupulous people from that point on. But he meets many good people as well. This narrative reads as if it were intended chiefly, or at least partly, to carry the word of Jesus. James Albert claims he rejected the faith by which he was raised (in "the sun, moon and stars") even then, before he was kidnapped, choosing instead to believe in a single superior entity. Thus Christianity was a natural fit for him, goes the narrative, and really that's fine. It seems generous on his part—he knows the Bible and has obviously meditated on it and drawn strength from it. I am instinctively averse to the language of redemption through Jesus the Christ and only Jesus the Christ, even from such an unimpeachable source as this, and I had to fight that in myself a little while reading this. His time in North America was spent in the North, so no scenes of antebellum South, for which honestly I was grateful at this early point. Though this slave narrative is cluttered up too much with religion, it's a lucid and interesting story. James Albert is perfectly likable—sunny and optimistic in spite of his many setbacks. He is grateful for and remembers the good that people have done him, and he has been good to others too. It's hard not to like that. He's also sympathetic for the way he is taken advantage of and bounces back. The slave narratives and related pieces I've been reading are mostly in chronological order, so this is the earliest—but it also seems like a nice way to ease into this.

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

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Tell Mama (1968)

I'm open to the idea that Etta James may have done some bandwagon-jumping by traveling to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record her 1968 album, an album I have never been willing to get far from since formal introductions to it some 10 years ago. She had not had a hit in nearly five years, and by 1968 Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, and many others had been churning them out from down that way, with memorable songs, a signature sound with spine-tingling horn charts tight as drums, and a certain mysterious admixture of pain and joy we just call soul. Like many such singers, James always had the pipes to put material over. But she didn't write her own and was thus dependent on others for the good stuff. For this project, she got that first and foremost from the one-two punch of the first two tracks on the first side of the album, which were also the A-side ("Tell Mama") and B-side ("I'd Rather Go Blind") of the first single. It took a total of five credited songwriters to create those two amazing songs, and then some dozen more for the other 10 on the original album (a 2001 CD reissue worth snagging raised the total number of tracks to 22). I'm not sure how to read this—highly discriminating and choosy, on the one hand, or on the other unable to forge a bond with a single songwriter (e.g., Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb). We can read it any way we like, however, and my main takeaway from this album remains those first two songs. In fact, you really have to wonder why "Tell Mama" b/w "I'd Rather Go Blind" is not in the discussion of greatest two-sided singles of all time, with, I don't know, "Don't Be Cruel" b/w "Hound Dog," "Penny Lane" b/w "Strawberry Fields Forever," "It's Too Late" b/w "I Feel the Earth Move," "American Woman" b/w "No Sugar Tonight," or "Back on the Chain Gang" b/w "My City Was Gone." (What's more, as with "Come Together" b/w "Something," I'm not sure why the B-side is not the A-side, but leave that aside.)

"Tell Mama" jumps on with a snappy Muscle Shoals attack that launches at 0:01 and really does not give up for all of its 2:21. The singer is a woman set up to catch the rebound on a failing relationship and she's ready with whatever it takes: sympathy, a listening ear, and the comforts only Mama can provide. Whether the poor guy is crying real tears or just busy getting off, his head is bound to rest upon that bosom on the night of this song, and the realities of the prospect are all in Etta James's voice. "I'd Rather Go Blind," then, is almost a response song, a parallel situation but a shift in the point of view. Say that the man Mama wants to comfort is more of a dog setting up a side piece, and say the woman he is cheating on is tender and good. In that case, "I'd Rather Go Blind" is her song, proceeding from darkest sources of jealous anguish (maybe even that's Mama she sees talking to her man). It's so emotionally raw and yet so tenderly in control you almost don't know what hits you. The singer's weaknesses are also her strengths—her love and her inability to let go of it, even as she dramatically rehearses loss. The very figure of speech this song goes by gives away how much pain we're talking about here, even if it fails to clarify how real or imaginary it is. She would rather give up seeing altogether than to see her man tell Mama.

Well, that's cute, as an analysis, but I'm bound to point out it doesn't work. In "Tell Mama," the singer has herself witnessed the kind of trouble the poor guy's woman is up to. She's no good. Some of the images are practically searing: "She had another man throw you outdoors / Now the same man is wearing your clothes." That's a powerful (and objective) image of humiliation, which only makes Mama more endearing and appealing within the song (even as we sense an element of calculation to her too, because after all remember she's got the poor guy in a vulnerable position). But I feel you would have to be deaf not to be able to hear "I'd Rather Go Blind." It's such a smoldering sad ballad, with an organ playing long, long notes, an electric guitar adding small-scale flourishes, and the horns punctuating, as this woman, utterly forlorn in the moment, tells her story. She sees her man talking to another woman and somehow she senses something between them. It could well be just paranoia on her part. She can't stop looking at him talking to her, and she doesn't want to, but she's afraid to see what she might see. It's a tight narrative close-up of a moment of doubt in a relationship. We have no idea where it leads. It might be a random moment come and gone or it could be more significant. It's just an ambiguous moment brilliantly caught. And then the whole rest of the album (actually including the bonus tracks on the CD version) is pretty good too. Two mountains and a bunch of foothills. Do yourself a favor and don't forget this one exists.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Sanshô dayû, Japan, 124 minutes
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writers: Ogai Mori, Fuji Yahiro, Yoshikata Yoda
Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka, Kinshichi Kodera, Tamekichi Mochizuki
Editor: Mitsuzo Miyata
Cast: Eitaro Shindo, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Masao Shimizu, Akitaka Kono, Keiko Enami, Masahiko Kato

Based on a children's book published in 1915, which was in turn based on a folk tale dating back a millennium, Sansho the Bailiff is a calculating and cruel tour de force of casual human depravity. As if offering balm for its horrors, the film is silvery beautiful, with languorous elaborately framed shots like formal works of art, using a full spectrum of glowing grayscale tones. The beauty blunts only somewhat the harsh black and white realities of this story, which is less about Sansho and more about two children, Zushio and his younger sister Anju, and their parents. Even the folk tale puts Sansho in the title, however. He may be a sideline character but he represents a way of life—the strong man way, with vast wealth, slaves, concubines, and a brutal style.

That's part of Japanese history, from the country's feudal Heian period that provides the movie's setting. What's less part of Japanese history (or at least until halfway through the 20th century) also has a good deal to do with what makes Sansho the Bailiff so cunningly effective. Zushio's and Anju's father, Masauji Taira, is a kind of post-Jesus pre-Enlightenment savant. "Men are created equal," he gently impresses on Zushio. "Everyone is entitled to their happiness." Or at least the pursuit of it, I'm sure. Only two years before the release of this movie, Japan was still occupied by a culturally heavy-handed US which favored such sentiments. It's our good fortune (or maybe my American bias) that it works so well for this movie and story.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (1966)

Read story by Joyce Carol Oates online.

It's hard to imagine this strange, disturbing, and wonderfully exhausting story by Joyce Carol Oates coming from any other time than the 1960s—and it's also interesting to note, in passing, how few stories in this survey (only six of 125) are from the tumultuous period. In fact, though this story appears in two of the anthologies I'm looking at, it's the only '60s story in either of them published later than 1964. It's perfectly straightforward about what it is, a story about a girl of 15, coming into her sexuality but still easily manipulated by more experienced adults. Her name is Connie and she is just learning she can break away from her parents and conduct a life of her own. On the day of this story, she has declined to accompany her father, mother, and older sister on a daylong jaunt to the town picnic, which leaves her alone in the house, luxuriating in her freedom and solitude. But before long a car pulls up in the driveway with two strange men who want to talk to her. They are Arnold Friend, who does most of the talking, and Ellie, who listens to a transistor radio held to his ear and occasionally asks alarming questions such as, "You want me to pull out the phone?" They are obviously up to no good and they are bent on luring her out of the house and into their car for a ride. Arnold knows all kinds of things about Connie: her name, that she is alone there for the day, and other details. Very little is explained. We simply follow the strange and persevering conversation as it presses forward. Our minds begin to spin in different directions. Are they going to rape her and turn her out? Is it possible it's all innocent somehow? Except: "You want me to pull out the phone?" Oates herself seemed to have thrill killers in mind, as she said the story was inspired by an Arizona serial killer, Charles Schmid. The story is also dedicated to Bob Dylan, which Oates has said was because of his song "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." It's a slightly jarring element in an otherwise nearly flawless story about predators in action—based on imagination more than research, I suspect, which unmoors it slightly. Yet at the same time that makes it more fevered and unnerving. Bob Dylan may have felt right in 1966 but now I think her story belongs more to, say, Roy Orbison. (I'm sure that has everything to do with Smooth Talk, the intriguing 1985 movie version of this story, directed by Joyce Chopra, with Treat Williams and Laura Dern.) I've never got far with attempts to read Oates—I'm not even sure why exactly—but this story is great, gnawingly worrisome to read, provoking anxiety hours and days later. You want to know more about these people, not least what happened. But you never can. It's genuinely haunting.

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

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

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Alone Together (2011)

Sherry Turkle is an MIT professor who has spent a career examining the blurry line between humans and the machines they build. I remember that her last book on internet culture also had a keen interest in artificial intelligence (Life on the Screen, from 1995), but it was more sanguine or even optimistic about where it was all headed. Sixteen years later, she is quite evidently troubled. The book is divided into two sections, one on "sociable robots" and the other more generally on recent internet developments, notably social media. The robot section starts with two toy fads of the late '90s, Tamagotchis and Furbies, probing children age 4 to 15 about the sense they have of the aliveness of the creatures. Turkle always comes back to the strange allure of intelligent machines, acknowledging the reality of the appeal and characterizing it as a kind of projection, triggered in many different ways. Humans are hardwired to see faces, for example, reacting sympathetically and emotionally. When Turkle meets the robots Cog and Kismet, a more serious foray into robotics in the early 2000s, she feels flattered when one glances at her. Almost in spite of herself she momentarily thinks she feels some connection with it—as if it could understand her. It's also how many users describe their encounters with various robotic pets, incidentally suggesting a certain unnerving potentiality of them as caregivers and even companions. The second half, when she gets into Facebook (along with Second Life, a range of confessional sites, and more), was even more interesting. She points out how our styles of communication are changing. Suddenly, very few people enjoy sitting around talking on the phone the way they used to, and increasingly a whole generation is rejecting email too. It's more and more about "checking in" various ways, monitoring screens. Now I'm old-fashioned enough that I still like email, but I also don't like to talk on the phone. A complaint Turkle hears more than once is that it's too hard to say goodbyes and hang up. At the last minute, people don't want to let go. I know that experience. The time-shifting approach—I drop you a text or email or even voicemail (no one likes that anymore either, but I'm not sure anyone ever did) and you respond when you can or want—which is usually quickly, in this day and age, one of Turkle's points. What started as a convenience for people on the go has somehow morphed into a new paradigm of understanding time and reality. We are in this together. We can be in touch instantly. Yet we are too busy to actually spend time together. But we can be instantly available, at least for a few seconds of scant attention. We are all in this separate boat at the same time, hence the title of her book. Along the way, Turkle offers lots of provocative anecdotes and discussion, always searching for the touch points of technology and intimacy.

In case it's not at the library.