Saturday, August 18, 2018

SremmLife 2 (2016)

Whenever I'm drawn to an album in the first place by hit singles—in this case, "Swang" and especially "Black Beatles"—I can't be surprised if the whole thing doesn't necessarily add up to more than the sum of its parts. And SremmLife 2 does not, though most of these tunes have hooks and other redeeming qualities and at least one of the other singles and a few others distinguish themselves enough to make it worth throwing them into shuffle mixes. The duo of Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee took the strange name Rae Sremmurd from the name of a former label, EarDrummers, spelled backward, sort of. They're from Tupelo, Mississippi. Co-producer and EarDrummers principal Mike Will is based out of Atlanta. They made the first single from SremmLife 2 "By Chance," which is a fairly aimless if insinuating exercise riffing off a piano figure reminiscent of one by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti from the movie Eyes Wide Shut. "By Chance" never charted but I enjoyed the excuse to roam around the movie soundtrack another time. The big hit for Rae Sremmurd came with the third try from this album. "Black Beatles" turned out to be the monster, spending weeks in and out of the #1 spot. You probably know it for that reason, and know already what a blast of fresh free-floating energy it is (although I understand you might be tired of it now), with a rhythm pitched face-forward and moving like the lumbering Frankenstein monster around the edges of all the hairpin switch-ups. It's a dicey move to name check Liverpool's finest but when your pop instincts are this good no one can object. Some other songs I've learned to look forward to here include the sinuous "Do Yoga," describing a lifestyle of champions ("all my girls do yoga, then get high at night"), "Set the Roof," as in set it on fire, a rousing rave-up, and "Take It or Leave It," another sweet example of how far and easily they can slip over into pop confectioneries. "Swang" was a solid follow-up to "Black Beatles." I haven't caught up with their latest yet, but SremmLife 2 is already a big advance over the debut.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

USA, 87 minutes
Director: Max Ophüls
Writers: Howard Koch, Stefan Zweig, Max Ophüls
Photography: Franz Planer
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Editor: Ted J. Kent
Cast: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians, Art Smith, Marcel Journet, Howard Freeman

This is one of those movies I seem to have a hard time making up my mind about. Sometimes I wonder how I end up seeing these movies I'm ambivalent about so often. Director and cowriter Max Ophüls was a primary interest of movie critic Andrew Sarris, which is where I first heard and became curious about Ophüls's work. Another highly regarded picture by him, at least as measured by the critical lists collated for the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, is Madame de... (this includes Sarris, who considered it the greatest movie ever made). At the moment, to give you some idea, Madame de... is at #120 on that list and Letter From an Unknown Woman at #122 (Ophüls's next-highest is Lola Montes at #323, another movie I'm ambivalent about but never mind). I've always had regard for Madame de..., along with some others by Ophüls I like quite a bit such as The Reckless Moment and Caught (also known as Wild Calendar). But Letter From an Unknown Woman has often posed challenges for me even in staying awake.

It's not Joan Fontaine and never was, but I'll get to that in a minute. In an attempt to make all this even less interesting if that's possible, I want to speculate that my ambivalence might be related to media format. That is, the copy of Letter From an Unknown Woman I've had for many years now is a VHS cassette, which is serviceable enough in 2018 but increasingly impractical, most notably because there is no longer a way to operate the machine with a remote. And I'm spoiled now—without a remote it's almost too hard to watch a picture carefully. So I fretted about it and finally decided to pay the $2 to watch it on Amazon Prime, and what do you know, the whole darn thing came to life again in a big new way. I can't explain this very well, but I know I liked Letter From an Unknown Woman the first time I saw it, in a theater setting.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

"A Toy for Juliette" (1967)

Robert Bloch's turn at the Dangerous Visions open mic comes with a long backstory and a surprise sequel. Bloch, who is probably best known today for writing the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is based. was an early acolyte and correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft. In 1943, Bloch published one of his most famous stories, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," which imagines the legendary London serial killer as an immortal being who must kill women periodically to live on. In many ways the story made Bloch's career. It was often anthologized and often imitated. With that in mind, almost 25 years later, editor Harlan Ellison asked Bloch to write a story for this collection about Jack the Ripper in the future. This story is the result. However, in his lengthy introduction to the story—which is actually longer than the story itself, and includes direct input from Bloch—Ellison admits it wasn't the story he had been thinking of. It is certainly solid in terms of psychotic cruelty, sadism, etc., which Bloch was good at. Practically clinical, in fact. Still, Ellison had his idea and asked Bloch's permission to do his own version of Jack the Ripper in the future, and also asks him to write the introduction for it (you can see that these story introductions and afterwords are a lively and integral part of the collection). That's the next story in this special two-part episode, which Ellison counsels us to read in tandem—the whole thing, both introductions, both stories, and both afterwords by the Ellison/Bloch tag team. More on that next. "A Toy for Juliette," meanwhile, is basically a chamber drama with a time travel sideshow involving sadists. Or psychopaths or sociopaths—always get those two mixed up. It's post-apocalyptic times in the future. Not many humans on the planet. Juliette and her grandfather are hunkered up in some stronghold, from which Grandfather time travels, collecting specimens from the past. Bloch goes a bit far in suggesting they include Amelia Earhart and other famous disappearing people. Once Juliette gets hold of them she tortures them to death. The story spends a considerable amount of time on her methods. Then Jack the Ripper shows up as a specimen—he's another famous disappearing person, of course (conceivably, Grandfather could get around to the Zodiac killer as well). "A Toy for Juliette" is a creepy and unpleasant story, and totally professional. We'll see what Ellison had in mind for the Jack the Ripper scenario next.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, August 13, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Full disclosure and true confession: I was nearly 13 when the first Mister Rogers' Neighborhood aired in Pittsburgh in February 1968. Because the show was generally intended for children around ages 2 to 5, perhaps up to 8, even by the time I'd heard of it I had no interest in it. It was for babies. Down the line, when Sesame Street and Electric Company came along and grew popular I looked in at them all out of curiosity. By then I was maybe 21? Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was the one I liked least, and honestly, something about Rogers's immaculate imperturbability gave me the willies. He was hard to watch. I experienced some of that again in about the first quarter of this remarkable picture by veteran documentary producer / director Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, 20 Feet From Stardom). Fred Rogers is so matter-of-fact about looking square into the camera and saying things like he wants to be your friend and he likes you just the way you are, that it makes me squirm, still. In fact, as the movie went along, I started to realize he actually has quite a bit in common with Jonathan Richman, the eccentric singer-songwriter who abandoned an amazing rock band 40 years ago to go his own way, writing songs like no one else writes about summer sadness, dancing in lesbian bars, and Vermeer. The affect presented to the world by both Rogers and Richman is so open, naïve, and sincere that it's hard not to wonder about things like mental illness. There's a great clip here from the old Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder where Snyder tries to pierce the facade and finds that's all there is. What you see is what you get with Fred Rogers. Clue: He's not the one we have to worry about being mentally ill. Our cynicism and other psychic poisons make us mean and suspicious, and the hardest thing to see and understand at all is just that. Rogers flew right at questions like "am I a mistake?" and issues like death, divorce, disability, loneliness, rejection. This movie is full of absolutely fearless moments from his TV show and it is uncanny what he produced. Two days after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, for example, Rogers went on the air with a segment where his Daniel puppet suddenly asks, "What does assassination mean?" It is a moment that only deepens into itself. Somehow it captures the shock and the grief of the time. The immediate response, even more than 50 years later, is palpable relief that a taboo subject has at last come into the open. There is a kind of catching the breath for what happens next (the cynic in me also wants to call attention to what great TV it is, even or especially in our reality TV era). I never knew Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister—a non-flaunting Christian, the best kind. And one thing that everyone seems to agree on about this fellow is that the more you know about him the more you respect and love him. All it took for me was the hour and a half of this amazing documentary.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Handful of Dust (1934)

I read some Evelyn Waugh when I was a teen (and much later saw the TV miniseries Brideshead Revisited) but not much sticks. He's British and very dry, his humor easy to miss until you step back to look at the bigger picture. Tony and Brenda Last are in a comfortable if not passionate marriage, but trouble is on the horizon early in this story. Tony is landed aristocracy. His estate, Hetton Abbey, has been in his family for generations and is practically more important to him than his marriage. But Brenda finds it a cold old barn and has little interest in Tony's endless renovation projects. Before long she has taken an apartment in London, and then a lover, John Beaver, a shallow society player who amuses her. The marriage falls apart in slow motion and there's even more bad luck ahead for Tony. Eventually it's divorce, but Brenda and Beaver are heartless in their demands, overplaying their hand. Once Tony realizes they would force him to sell Hetton to settle with them, he finally understands what he is up against, says Fuck you (figuratively—that's me talking not Waugh), and trots off with a friend on a jaunt to South America as "explorers." This does not go well, to say the least, and Tony's final fate is inspired, creepy—and comic, when you step back. Interestingly, Waugh also wrote an alternative ending, in which Tony escapes the jungle and returns to England and reunites with Brenda, who has been rejected by Beaver when it becomes evident she's not actually wealthy. It's not a happy ending either, but it's happier. I thought it was interesting, and enjoyed the chance to read it, but prefer Waugh's first choice too. Waugh's language is careful and nuanced, very good in many small ways—his colors, for example, can be almost distractingly precise and vivid. And he's sly too. The story slips back and forth between a comically acerbic voice and tender moving tragedy, like an optical illusion with two competing images. Is it profiles of two faces or is it a vase? Still, though it is often well done and some parts are great, I think overall it might be just a little too reserved and British for me.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Skeleton Tree (2016)

Nick Cave has been a problem I've only worried infrequently and from a distance. I don't know the Birthday Party that well—everything I've ever heard has sounded generic to me within a narrow range of punk. Then his long Elvis / U.S. South phase with the Bad Seeds (from approximately The Firstborn Is Dead, and hitting a crashing crescendo with Murder Ballads) left me intrigued but usually unsatisfied. He seemed to have a head full of steam-powered notions, like Elvis as the slouching beast, but they never seemed to get traction. At least I found a new appreciation for the quiet in the original murder ballads—that's the power of them. Then, finally, as if learning the lesson himself, with The Boatman's Call Cave and band more latched on to something like a demented cross between lounge and hymnal music, with high-flown biblical language ("Into my arms, O Lord," "The ring is locked upon the finger," "It was the year I officially became the bride of Jesus," etc.) as he indulged spiritual yearnings in a suave, sinister, and somehow depraved context. It really works for me—maybe it's the widow's peak. At his best, Cave has an unaffected way of reaching back effortlessly to deepest cultural sources, like the Bible, for the most prized antiques. My favorite is No More Shall We Part, but others I've dipped into less intensely fit the bill too: The Boatman's Call, the double album Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus, and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! I never caught up with the 2013 Push the Sky Away and decided I wanted to check in again with the latest, from two years ago, which came in the wake of the accidental death of Cave's son. It sounds much like more of the same to me, for better or worse. It's supercharged on one level with a somber air of grief and yet Cave as the singer is distanced and calculated. He often sounds like he is reading poetry, or mumbling to himself. He and the music drift into fields of ambience as if losing trains of thought, a neatly done mimic of a mind temporarily unmoored by passing circumstances. At these points his skill at scoring movies also shows (Wind River, Hell or High Water, The Road, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). At other times, as in "I Need You" (an iconic title he's renting from the Beatles, America, and LeAnn Rimes), the warbling position of faith could not be more clear or tender. An angel named Else Torp sits in on "Distant Sky." As for the Bad Seeds, it seems to be the second nature of Cave and these players to be nearly perfectly in synch after all this time playing together, notably Warren Ellis, cowriter with Cave of all these songs. The result might be classified as a slightly more literary version of Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. Not his best but worth a visit.

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

USA, 155 minutes
Director/writer: John Cassavetes
Photography: Mitch Breit, Al Ruban
Music: Bo Harwood
Editors: David Armstrong, Sheila Viseltear
Cast: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Katherine Cassavetes, Lady Rowlands, Fred Draper, Matthew Cassel, Matthew Labyorteaux, Christina Grisanti, George Dunn, Mario Gallo, Eddie Shaw

There is a lot of interesting background to the making of this movie—director and writer John Cassavetes mortgaged his house and borrowed heavily to get it done and then an unusual distribution strategy had to be pursued when even independents declined to work with it. I recall a lot of discussion at the time it was released of strategies of improvisation in the performances. Much about the picture did seem shaggy and rough. But somehow that is no longer the case. It feels to me now like a consummately professional production, and points such as the handheld shooting only give it more immediacy. It is excellent filmmaking. It looks great, its story is tender and surprising by turns, and except for the rich color stock of the film, which looks like 100% American '70s cinema, it could have been released even in the last five years. The movie it reminds me of now is Boyhood, with its penetration into the ways a family orbits itself.

It's Cassavetes's film by all the normal markers, but still it owes everything to the performance of his wife Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti. Mabel is married to Nick (Peter Falk) and they have three kids under 10. At first, in a reflexive sort of way, the movie might appear to be courting trouble by taking on the theme of insanity, which is so often the band-aid of fiction. But mental illness in A Woman Under the Influence is not a flimsy way to explain something. It's just the given, and as such the subject itself of the movie, focusing especially on the chaos it produces on the loved ones of the sufferer. In this case, Cassavetes seeks an interesting extra layer by casting his mother and Rowlands's mother as the mothers of Nick and Mabel, respectively. Medicine and attitudes have advanced since the '70s, but the portrait of the Longhetti family in crisis is still perfectly recognizable, with Nick attempting to come to terms with the reality of his wife's condition, fighting through denial and shame, even as Mabel continually loses her grip and blows every chance she gets in polite company.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

"The Malley System" (1967)

Harlan Ellison might seem a bit judgmental in his introduction to Miriam Allen deFord's story in the Dangerous Visions anthology, going on about how old she was to contribute, but I must say a birthdate in 1888 seems remarkable to me too. Though not without its flaws, the story is the best one yet in this collection. I'm going to help you here—or you may consider this a spoiler alert. I thought the structure was a bit clumsy. The first half is disconnected scenes of confusing violence. In the second half they are explained. For me, this meant going back to read the first half again, and then it made much more sense (it's sort of the problem of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury). So I'm going to tell you now. Stand by. The "Malley System" is a form of punishment or rehabilitation for convicted violent felons—murderers, rapists, child molesters, etc. With brain mapping and other technologies sufficiently advanced it's possible to systematically make someone vividly re-experience their crimes again in memory. DeFord explores some of the ramifications in terms of the effects. The treatment is administered daily, and there is a pattern to the responses. The story has a good concept, but I think the best part, once understood, are those scenes from the first half. They are horrific and unnerving. This is sharp, vivid, thoroughly imagined writing. DeFord also wrote crime journalism and other nonfiction, and it shows. Her fantasies are clinical and precise. It's hard to miss a certain amount of rage back of it. In fact, I've almost retreated all the way to Ellison's dumbstruck wonder that material like this could come from a little old lady (Ellison refers to her as a "lady," but I am doing so only ironically—really). If it helps, and it helps me a little, she also wrote for left-wing magazines in the 1920s. That helps me understand where her rage might have been coming from in 1967 as a 79-year-old. Certainly the totalitarian state, with Lachin Malley as its representative—perhaps a figure in the vein of Stanley Milgram—is coolly deconstructed and plausibly responsible. It's chilling, and it's the first story in this collection to live up to the title.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, August 06, 2018

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

This near-future dystopia takes dead aim at corporatism West Coast style, putting a racial gloss on the Brazil-like nightmares it sees ahead. I don't like Brazil that much in the first place (way too much texture, my usual problem with Terry Gilliam), but the movie Sorry to Bother You reminded me of more was The Circle, a similar attempt last year to signal through the flames of pernicious Silicon Valley culture. Sorry to Bother You is ironic comedy, The Circle is suspense thriller, but the complaints and observations are similar, and familiar. Cassius "Cash" Green (Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out and Selma) is in his late 20 or early 30s and lives in Oakland. He's just landed a job in a telemarketing cube farm at the corporation RegalView. That means he can pay his back rent and help his uncle prevent the bank from foreclosing. His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, Creed) is a performance artist with a day job waving signs in front of stores and on busy corners. She is working on a gallery show. The biggest show on TV is I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me—amazingly, that's exactly what it is, a cross between laff-riot TV game show productions and the violence channel in Videodrome. Meanwhile, at the job, Green's work and coworkers are likely familiar to anyone who has put time in on the temp circuit as good-hearted victims of various corporate greed and malfeasance plays. In RegalView's particular line, making sales on the phone is the name of the game. One of Green's coworkers, Squeeze (Steven Yeun, Glenn on The Walking Dead), is trying to organize a union and plans a strike and other actions. But they have poor timing for Cash Green. It turns out he can do his job pretty well when he puts on a white voice, with the help of coaching from another coworker, Langston (Danny Glover). It's actually a lip-synch job, with David Cross, Patton Oswalt, and others providing the white voices. With his white voice, Green is soon on his way to the higher echelons of RegalView as a "power caller," with better offices, a promotion and raise, and the opportunity for ever greener pastures. The only problem is that he is literally marketing B2B for slave labor, as RegalView's biggest client is the corporation WorryFree (please note all the embedded capitalization please), which offers a scheme much like the reverse mortgage only based on lifetime labor. You sign the WorryFree contract and they will keep you working, fed, and sheltered for the rest of your life—it's a promise. Later in the movie, human genetics experiments offer another model for temps, but along about here Green's conscience starts to bother him. It's not that the ideas in Sorry to Bother You are so tired—though they're not that fresh either. It helps that they look way too damn much like reality right now. But in the end I didn't think the movie had enough there there, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Portrait of My Body (1996)

After publishing his large (and essential) anthology of personal essays, Phillip Lopate went to work on his own third collection of them. This time, he says in the introduction, he thought he had to be more careful to include only personal essays—no "literary essays, film and architectural reviews, magazine articles about urbanism and travel, ephemeral 'relationship' pieces.... The dread of all publishing companies is to be caught publishing a random collection of pieces." Accordingly, some of the 13 pieces here are winsomely personal: about shushing in movie theaters, remembering Greenwich Village, and the title piece, equal parts candor and dry wit about his body parts. He likes his legs a lot, for example, because he likes being tall. Many of the pieces touch on his marriage and child. It's a grand joke in his circles that his first collection was called Bachelorhood. His second was Against Joie de Vivre, leading to conjecture this one would be called Against Bachelorhood, a kind of apologia. It may be somewhat awkward for him but I like the sound of the marriage and family here. Speaking of being against things, Lopate notes a theme of "resistance" that runs through these pieces. It's perhaps most explicit in "Resistance to the Holocaust," which is less a personal essay and more a personal opinion—or even polemic—but a useful and interesting one. That's not least because, writing in 1989, he has some air of authority and prescience on the topic. Essentially his argument is that by making the Holocaust a unique event in history, which cannot be compared with other genocides, it must be removed from history and the sphere of critical examination. Lopate is very careful to detach himself from deniers—as a Jew himself, he makes clear he understands all the stakes. It's a subtle point, his resistance. It's more about sentimentality and hagiography obscuring the truth. In some ways, in these various themes of resistance, Lopate comes across more like a basic contrarian, a position with which of course I have much sympathy. If so many people are for it, in the world of human psychology herd instinct, then how can it possibly be any good? At the most fundamental level, this is the attitude all good writers should bring to the party, not just personal essayists. Good stuff again.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

"Riders of the Purple Wage" (1967)

Harlan Ellison makes no bones about it. He says Philip Jose Farmer's story is not just the longest in the Dangerous Visions collection, but the best. You might think Ellison would be more politic about the judgment, but that's Ellison and in many ways his view of the story had wide agreement. Classified as a novella, Farmer's story went on to share the inaugural Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1968 (with Anne McCaffrey's "Weyr Search," not in this collection). For me, Farmer's story might be the most excruciating—80 pages of meaningless action accompanied by groaning literary puns and suspect conservative orthodoxies (as I read them). The title is an obvious play on Zane Grey—too early for the Grateful Dead spinoff band. In the mid-21st-century setting of this tale, the "purple wage" is a guaranteed living income, which everyone in is entitled to as a matter of being born. Government is totalitarian, but appears to be generally benign. Art and creative work are now prized above all else, though it does not appear much different from the celebrity culture we are attempting to live with at the moment. But points for prescience are in order. Among other things, Farmer foresaw what we now call reality TV, with all its potential for desensitized alienation. "Since the solid-state camera is still working," his omniscient narrator observes in the middle of a typically confusing scene, "it is sending to billions of viewers some very intriguing, if dizzying, pictures. Blood obscures one side of this picture, but not so much that the viewers are wholly cheated"—cheated, that is, from witnessing a vicious beating using the self-same blunt object camera that is broadcasting. Farmer could see the coming social reverberations but not how microscopic camera technology would become. I ignored the references to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake as being of no particular good to anyone, and mostly read "Riders of the Purple Wage" as a crypto conservative argument against guaranteed living income, i.e., because most humans can't handle the freedom and are intended to be put to better use by elites. "A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class," as Mr. Potter scolds George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life about similar enlightened social policies. But that's not actually what Farmer was after, as he explains in his afterword. In fact, it is the other way entirely. Farmer's afterword offers an eight-point precis of what the story is about—implicit support for a Triple Revolution document that was presented to President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and called for "large-scale public works, low-cost housing, public transit, electrical power development, income redistribution, union representation for the unemployed, and government restraint on technology deployment" (per Wikipedia). I really wish that had been more clear to me, because I can't bear the thought of going back to read the story again.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Twelve Years a Slave (1853)

Now a major motion picture—or two, if you count the PBS TV movie from 1984, Solomon Northup's Odyssey, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Avery Brooks (which I haven't seen yet). Let me be clear that I believe every word—if anything, it's the happy ending that's hardest to get past here. It all makes perfect sense when you consider the attitudes that were common in that period of American history. The prices of slaves alone makes apparent how valuable they were in terms of property. So it makes sense that free blacks in the North would be in danger of kidnapping, or even systematic kidnapping rings. It's the same perverse incentive that produces chop shops today. Solomon Northup in that regard is not such an unusual example, he was just unlucky. As with most slave narratives, particularly so close to the Civil War, this also has a political point to make. Northup writes about issues familiar to this genre of activist literature: the cruel treatment and punishments, the specter of white masters out of control beneath a thick crust of rationalization (the Bible says it's OK, it's the law, Africans are obviously inferior, etc.), and of course no legal standing whatsoever. On winning his freedom, after yes 12 years, Northup's first order of business is to return to Washington, D.C., to press charges against his kidnappers. But the laws in D.C. don't grant him the legal status to testify. If you've seen the 2013 movie most of this story will feel familiar. The movie is actually quite faithful to the narrative, though excising some scenes such as the trial in Washington. Northup is plainspoken and explicit about his years as a slave, notably on the punishments. This book was part of the abolitionist movement gaining momentum in the 1850s, published just the year after the iconic Uncle Tom's Cabin (not a slave narrative but well-researched on the realities of American slavery). Twelve Years a Slave was reprinted once after the Civil War, in 1869, and then languished for nearly a century, when renewed interest in African American life and literature restored it to consideration. All of the slave narratives I've read are good, but this is one of the best. Northup's skill at storytelling is exceptional and his story is long, interesting, and horrific. Somehow, his voice is mostly filled more with love and patience, though his rage gets the better of him sometimes. Amazing book.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Led Zeppelin III (1970)

As it happens, Led Zeppelin III is the only album by the band I never did own, which makes it slightly exotic (a friend had a copy so I had played with the turn-a-wheel cover design). Of course I know the one hit it spawned, the gloriously ridiculous "Immigrant Song," which peaked at #16 late in 1970. In case you were wondering, the subject of the song is not the immigrants that Donald Trump's ponyboys and ponygirls whinny about. No, they're white. They come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. Among other things, more than 30 years later, "Immigrant Song" was the lunch theme when I worked with a notably rambunctious office crew. We piled into the car and snapped it on. Ahh-ahh AHHHHH-HHH ah! The Clash's "Know Your Rights" was the other mainstay staple of those lunch trips. Heads wildly bobbing to be sure. We were way too old for such behavior, but we were temps of a certain age. More recently, in an impossibly gorgeous song by Craig Finn, "God in Chicago," the soundtrack for a road trip is given as Prince's 1999 and Led Zeppelin III (on a wobbly tape deck). That also sounds about right. So, giving III some badly needed attention nigh 50 years on, I find it's a great companion, warm, rolling, easygoing, like a boat rocking down the slow river. In 1970, Rolling Stone magazine still did not like Led Zeppelin. This is back when things like "selling out" mattered like poison for RS, so they could and did shrug at leviathan sales. It's a little different now. This isn't your father's Perry Como Republican Party. Only Bridge Over Troubled Waters sold better than Led Zeppelin II in 1970. Lester Bangs got the honors for the takedown this time. He wanted to like them, yes, really wanted to like them, and even did like one song on III very much ("That's the Way"). But more generally he found the band "doesn't challenge anybody's intelligence or sensibilities." I would suggest that, in 1968 and even still, "Dazed and Confused," for one, poses challenges to intelligence and sensibilities. In fairness to Bangs and other contemporary naysayers, another big player at that moment (though sales did not match Zepp's) was Grand Funk Railroad with a I-II-III of On Time, Grand Funk, and Closer to Home. If you squint, it might look like all the same thing.

And I do think this is the weakest of Led Zeppelin's first three albums. It's not the one for newcomers—just slightly lazy, it presumes on previous good will to some extent. "Immigrant Song," for all its charm, does not match "Whole Lotta Love" or the aforementioned "Dazed and Confused" (or "Stairway to Heaven" or "Kashmir") as an album tent pole. But Led Zeppelin III is also a place where Robert Plant takes his shtick up another notch as a tireless unself-conscous imp and Jimmy Page gets to show off guitar chops maybe even more than purloined hooks. I just go by the numbers and tend to gravitate most to "Since I've Been Loving You" because it's the longest, at 7:25, an all-night slow burner for sure. Page's playing is lyrical in the showcase portion (the greatest guitar solo of all time, some on the internet will tell you), and then, finally, it wilts into a tender weeping number. And Bangs is right about "That's the Way"—also quite beautiful. Yes, it's a certain apotheosis of cock rock, but as an aural object it does not necessarily have to be toxic (aside from the personalities of band members, if they can be separated, which maybe they can't, I know). See again the Craig Finn song. And think of the Vikings. "Always sweep with, with threshing oar / Our only goal will be the western shore." Ahh-ahh AHHHHH-HHH ah!

Friday, July 27, 2018

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Italy / USA, 229 minutes
Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Harry Grey, Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone, Stuart Kaminsky, Ernesto Gastaldi
Photography: Tonino Delli Colli
Music: Ennio Morricone
Editor: Nino Baragli
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, Burt Young, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe, Joe Pesci, Louise Fletcher, James Hayden, Darlanne Fluegel, Larry Rapp, Richard Bright, Jennifer Connelly, Scott Schutzman Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Brian Bloom, Adrian Curran

Director and cowriter Sergio Leone's final film as a director (and his first in 13 years) initially looks like a departure from his earlier movies. In many ways Leone's whole career was about departures. He reinvented the Western in the '60s as an operatic, lugubrious, and explosive play of set pieces, composed as artfully as anything by Michelangelo Antonioni, and incidentally lending cinema history a title trope in Once Upon a Time in the West that hasn't been used up yet. Not only did Leone ape that title for this movie, but many others have used it since as well, with memorable "once upon a time" pictures for Mexico, Anatolia, Rio, Mumbai, China, and more (including next year, from Quentin Tarantino, Hollywood). I still haven't figured out what it signifies exactly, beyond a certain dreamy fairy tale yet cynically knowing epic nostalgia, with violence.

If Westerns are about the impulse to get further and further from civilization, about Huck Finn's eternal yen to light out for the Territory, then Once Upon a Time in America is about the first stop that immigrants from Europe made on the quixotic journey and the place where many of them pulled up and stayed, the teeming ghettoes of New York and other Eastern cities at the turn of the century. The story involves four youths who come of age with approximately Prohibition, three Jews and a Pole (approximately) who fight for social position in New York with Irish and Italians ahead of them in line and WASPs entirely out of reach (except, sometimes, their women). They commit petty crimes, battle for turf, and eventually graduate to bootlegging. It sounds like a typical gangster picture, and indeed as a marathon it sits comfortably next to the first two Godfather movies and Goodfellas. But it's a Leone picture and also strays at will into just plain weird stuff.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

"The Day After the Day the Martians Came" (1967)

Frederik Pohl's story has a good point to make. It may seem painfully obvious, and really I want to dismiss it for its obviousness, but a lot of people these days are obviously in need of this obvious point. It's about immigrants and how we—Americans—treat them. In the future, a mission to Mars has discovered Martians! They are on their way back to Earth with specimens. No one knows anything about them yet, such as whether they are intelligent or what their skills are, except what is known of their appearance, which is "like a sad dachshund with elongated seal flippers for limbs." It appears they might be crying. The story takes place in a Florida motel, where journalists are booked two to a room for the chance to see them in person when the Mars crew makes it back. For the most part they are staying up all night in the motel bar, playing poker, and telling jokes. I'm not sure how the bar stays open, but never mind. The jokes, which at first I thought were an obnoxious element of the story, turn out to be pretty much the point of the story. You'll recognize them right away. Here's one: "Why doesn't a Martian swim in the ocean? Because he'd leave a ring around it." Likely we've all heard these witless putdown jokes where the target IDs are interchangeable: polacks, N-words, faggots, etc. Pohl was a son of German immigrants, born in 1919 (so in his late 40s when he wrote this story). It's not hard to imagine how German immigrants were treated, at least until after World War II, when they became white along with the Irish and with Italians not far behind. I'm not sure how this story would have registered in 1967, let alone in this "dangerous visions" context—as tediously relevant, perhaps, a certain attribute of some entertainment that was only incidentally entertaining, like Billy Jack or The Mod Squad setting out to "rap" with teens and young adults about ongoing unprecedented social unrest. I don't remember this particular story from the first time I read the collection but suspect I would have found it a little square. And that's what it is indeed, making a self-obvious point with thundering self-righteousness. But the people who need to understand it can't seem to understand it, while the rest of us yawn. Same as it ever was, amirite?

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, July 23, 2018

First Reformed (2017)

In First Reformed, director and writer Paul Schrader turns again to both American Calvinism and to the heroic era of European art cinema. What he comes away with is one of his richest and yet most characteristic pictures. It's kind of a knockout, in fact, though a bit lumpy and with some corners cut. I haven't followed Schrader since about Light Sleeper and Affliction. Maybe I've been missing out, or maybe I'm just excited at the moment, but First Reformed feels like it might deserve a place with Taxi Driver, Hardcore, Patty Hearst—with his best. Ethan Hawke deserves a lot of the credit too. In a quiet but electrifying performance as the Reverend Ernst Toller, who is suffering unto sickness from modern-day life, he manages a poise and calm that is anything but poise and calm, an inner coiled tension of tremendous anguish. If Calvinism gets its due here so does Schrader's cinema hero Robert Bresson. Toller is a Protestant pastor in a Calvinist First Reformed church that dates back to pre-Revolutionary times in upstate New York, but much of the action in this picture is propelled literally by his diary. If that's not enough, there's also a bicycle shot straight out of Bresson's 1951 Diary of a Country Priest. We could do this all day—there are also obvious elements in First Reformed of Ingmar Bergman (notably Winter Light), Andrei Tarkovsky, Carl Dreyer, and other usual suspects. But what I like best about First Reformed is its straightforward commitment to meaning in life and/or the lack of it. An intense scene occurs early, when Toller attempts to counsel a young environmental activist, Michael (Philip Ettinger), whose wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant. Michael doesn't want her to have the baby. Speaking with Toller, he lays out an eloquent vision of the likely future of the planet in the next 33 years. It is devastating and convincing—to me, to Toller, to anyone who is environmentally aware. The people who deny climate change are also in this movie, running big corporations and footing hefty portions of the bills for the megachurch corporation Toller reports to up the chain—the movie is also about the ongoing corporatization of religion in America. These people believe talking about the reality of climate change is rude in social situations. It is "being political" and they object to it. As they are paying the bills they feel they have the right to dictate terms to some extent. "No politics." So it goes. Toller cannot accept what is happening in the world. He cannot live with it. He lingers over the question Michael posed to him, "Can God forgive us for what we've done to his creation?" Toller doesn't know what he can do. The case for despair is so convincing here—in fact, despair is all they are talking about and living through in this movie. Then Schrader reaches back for some of the apocalyptic elements of Travis Bickle's war on the scum of the earth to effectively charge events in First Reformed to a thriller pitch. In the final third, the picture goes to some pretty strange places, including the final images. It's not realism at all but a kind of inspired hallucination of spirituality made visible. Like Bresson, Schrader's goal is to film the soul imprisoned in the flesh. Like Toller, and John Calvin, he wants to save those souls. Good luck with that to all of us.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Zodiac (1986)

My interest flared up again in the Zodiac killings when David Fincher's movie came out about 10 years ago, but soon enough went on the wane again. The iconic serial killer represents a tantalizing dark mystery but everything still leads to dead ends. The most persistent questions—who was he, what was his motive, and how did he evade capture?—will likely never be answered definitively, or worse, may be disappointing when they are. Compare the BTK case (talk about the banality of evil). I realize I'm judging sensational crime in terms of entertainment, when these are overwhelming tragedies at the core, but it's all in a day's work for true-crime literature, often a kind of voyeurism. I'm not even sure Robert Graysmith's book is the place to go on Zodiac. As the editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who famously became obsessed with the case—Jake Gyllenhaal plays him in the movie—he's not exactly objective or even in the best position to tell the story. It's as if he knew the material too well when he finally sat down to write his books (there's a sequel to this I doubt I will get to). He alternates between rote mood-setting and rushing to get us up to speed on the details. Then, when he feels we're sufficiently briefed, he can sail off into virtual fugues about what it means and how it almost adds up. He calls attention to details that don't seem that significant, such as astrology, or harks to the weird coincidences like he is telling a campfire story. I feel for him, in a way. I think he just wants to know what happened. He's made it his life's work, and it may not get anywhere. Published originally in 1986, extensively revised in the '90s, my urgent red, black, and yellow mass market paperback version includes a late section about the movie, with notes from the set. He sounds a little dazzled by Hollywood, writing, "It's an odd feeling to have the finest actor of his generation play yourself in a major motion picture." Since Gyllenhaal is not even the finest actor of his generation in that movie it made me trust Graysmith's judgment a little less. Still, he has assembled all the Zodiac facts here along with doing a fair amount of original research, and he's often lucid when discussing the many strange twists in the case. The Zodiac killer has his antecedents, of course—Jack the Ripper is the original model, including taunting notes to police and newspapers. Later, Son of Sam, BTK, and others took whirls. The Zodiac murders are chilling and horrific but there are times I wonder if Zodiac committed any of them and instead only took credit. But a handful anyway seem certain. It's an odd chapter in history, no doubt, crime or otherwise.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

"Flies" (1967)

Former Harlan Ellison roommate Robert Silverberg bats second in the Dangerous Visions lineup, as Ellison perhaps seems to be paying back favors a bit. On the other hand, Silverberg would go on to write at least one great novel, Dying Inside. His story for this collection, like Lester del Rey's, pits mankind against superior beings, but this time it doesn't go as well. Silverberg's are called "the golden ones." They have found a severely wounded Cassiday drifting in space after a spaceship accident. They take what's left of him and regenerate him to full health, with some modifications, and then send him home to Earth. The golden ones want to know more about our species, specifically our emotions (I don't believe Gene Roddenberry has anything particular to do with this story, though in some ways it sounds like him). They set up monitoring technology and reprogram Cassiday's brain slightly. Can you guess which emotions the golden ones are interested in? That's right, grief and despair. There's no way this ends well, and indeed, for better or worse, it all comes down to Silverberg's ability to conceive cruel and sadistic scenarios. He manages it pretty well three separate times, and four if you count the ending. In his afterword Silverberg says he was thinking of vampires and their ability to control others, as their immortal lives go along with breaks for feeding. But we don't really see the golden ones feeding on Cassiday and the people in Cassiday's life as much as playing with them out of a genuine if cold curiosity. It's not so different from what humans do to animals and one another. You'd like to think the more technologically advanced civilization would know better, but we don't, so why should they, amirite? The story is mostly an exercise in sadistic fantasy, but it can be justified by rabbits and cosmetics, so all right: Dangerous. In fairness, the experience of reading it is harrowing enough to make it dangerous—it can certainly be unpleasant—so give Silverberg that too. It's nicely put together, with a tidy hatful of literary tricks and a source in Shakespeare's King Lear. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport." Bravo. But the story also leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)

Marlon James's breakthrough third novel is actually not brief, at some 700 pages, nor is it particularly about seven killings, although I may have lost track in the blizzards of surging language and exploding violence. It's a sprawling and slippery mass. Its broad sections revolve around five separate specific dates in Jamaica and in New York City (December 2, 1976, etc.), populated by a babbling cacophony of a competing cast of characters like voices from the lake of fire: Jamaican gangsters and their women, CIA men, a rock critic who reads like a road never taken by Cameron Crowe, and many more. James, like Jonathan Lethem or Jonathan Franzen, bears certain sublimated rock critic impulses, but also like the Jonathans evinces a greater gift for fiction and novels. The narrative is rich with potent allusion. Much of the larger story revolves around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley that took place in December 1976, connecting it to the later epidemic of crack cocaine in New York in the '80s, and the shared fortunes that followed for Jamaica and the US. The first two sections of Brief History, nearly half the book, are dedicated to the day before and the day of the attempt on Marley's life. In terms of the in-your-face style of telling the story, probably the most obvious comparison is with William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. They both use short chapters written first-person by multiple characters, but Faulkner's book is compact and weak sister next to this, which is a hothouse of febrile voice, Jamaican patois, and homicidal fantasies even by the fragments. I got the sense that James wrote and wrote and wrote, then condensed and chopped, and then wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I wouldn't be surprised if the final version represents only a fraction of all that could have gone in. James here feels like Thomas Wolfe in the passionate throes of erupting great novels. A Brief History dwells in streams of consciousness, flowing deep into the heads of even incidental characters, but also feels as if it were written almost unconsciously, by a medium catching vibrations from the air. Reading it for the first time, I often lost the thread through its lush trails but it never really lets you go. It is usually deep inside heads or briskly moving the action along, and sometimes the edges blur. It's hallucinatory, with static bursts of writing as vivid as William Burroughs at his most fiendish, some of the scenes sticking with me still. James has done an impressive job of telling the story of Jamaica and the US, specifically from the '70s to the '90s, but the scope is tremendous historically and the ambition almost limitless. I can't wait to try this monster again.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Closer (1980)

I have a distinct memory of someone somewhere writing about Joy Division and, when it came to their second and last album, portentously remarking, "The only question now was, closer to what?" It's a good question, as the album came out after Ian Curtis's suicide and bore further alarming and eloquent evidence of his state of mind. In many ways the titles by themselves paint the picture (though all songs are jointly credited to Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner): "Atrocity Exhibition" (the album opener, featuring a tractor and Curtis repeating, "This is the way, step inside"). Then "Isolation," "Passover"—really, I'm just giving you the album sequence here. "Colony" is fourth. In a word association game, at this point, I would be saying "Kafka." It goes on. The prevailing vanity—it's not just Curtis, everyone is pitching in to make this work—is of the meditated gaze into the abyss (or "The Eternal," second-last song). "Closer to what?" indeed. At the same time, ever since I read some other wag asking how to pronounce the title, my brain has consistently flipped to the version with the "z" sound, as in "the last part of a performance, collection, or series" (and not "a person who is skilled at bringing a business transaction to a satisfactory conclusion"). We can make some guesses about how far these folks would have gone with Curtis—and we can make some guesses about how far Curtis could have ever gone—but somehow the history of what actually happened is about as far as I can imagine it. This feels like a signoff, a denouement, a finale—a closer, even if it's really just the end of the overture. The music and songs are dramatic but not sentimental in the same way as Unknown Pleasures. And it's not surprising that a band identity this close to the void could end up with someone swallowed into it.

Here's another weird thing for me about this album. You might think I am overly interested in morbid things, and that the death of an artist would find me plunging into the catalog, but in fact I tend to go the other way. I might spend a few days listening to music or inevitably hearing it via media in the gyrations of the moment, but generally I put things away after the event for a long time, and don't always get back to them. So it went with Closer. I finally got a copy at some point but rarely listened. I never thought it was that good, too lackluster or mannered or something, but also I felt uncomfortable listening to it. This went on so long I finally decided I must just not like it as much as Unknown Pleasures. But going back one more time turned out to be the charm as the album has finally sparked up for me pretty good. Once again it's a stacked concept product. The band is steadily improving—that's heard better on the live shows included in the later editions. Producer Martin Hannett is at the helm again and gives it a similar claustrophobic from-the-bottom-of-a-well buff. The cover art lives just as squarely in the humanities vein. Where Unknown Pleasures had looked to science, a vast universe, and the Enlightenment with its graphic representation of a pulsar, Closer ushers us into an Italian tomb, suggesting medieval darkness, with a potent grace emerging from the composition of the photo and sculptures. One album is looking up at the night sky, the other is looking into the moldy earth. One album is black, the other is white. There are a lot of binaries here—and a lot of balance as well. The vision is consistent. So is the quality. Again, it may be hard to imagine listening to them habitually, but both Unknown Pleasures and Closer are great albums.

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Separation (2011)

Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, Iran / France, 123 minutes
Director/writer: Asghar Farhadi
Photography: Mahmoud Kalari
Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari
Cast: Payman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi

A Separation is a domestic drama, as sharp and edgy as it gets, about conservative religious values in conflict. It is set in modern-day theocratic Iran but could as easily, with a few changes of garb, involve Old World Roman Catholics, Pennsylvania Amish, New York City patrician liberals, Indian Hindus, or anywhere people make serious commitments to their faith and a moral life. In the framing story, Simin (Leila Hatami) has obtained a visa to leave Iran but she has only a biblical 40 days to act on it. She wants a better life for her 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi)—Simin is about the only person here who approximates a liberal. Simin's husband, Nader (Payman Maadi), is sympathetic to the view but refuses to leave because his elderly father has dementia and still needs his care. ("Does he even realize you are his son?" Simin argues. "I know he is my father," Nader responds.) Termeh seems inclined to stay with Nader. The situation appears unresolvable. Simin says she will file for divorce and, as the movie begins, leaves Nader to live with her parents in the meanwhile.

Because Simin was a primary caretaker of Nader's father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi)—a hulking brute who barely speaks from inside his dim fog, a rarely sympathetic onerous responsibility made leaden flesh—now the family's life becomes even more complex. Nader finds a woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to come in days to care for the old man. As it happens, Razieh is an even more conservative Muslim. And there are other complications. The job pays little and she has to commute a long way to get there. She cannot arrive early enough to see Nader before he goes to work in the morning. She has to bring her young daughter with her. She is pregnant. Nader's father has begun to soil himself and Razieh must consult religious authorities about whether it is a sin to help him clean up and change his clothes. She hides details of the job from her own husband, Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), because she knows what his opinion would be about whether it is a sin. Things only get worse from this point. The story is tightly wound, as events transpire organically, growing into a drama so intense that the movie can dispense entirely with musical cues. The narrative carries it.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

"Evensong" (1967)

The stories in Dangerous Visions are sequenced by anthologist Harlan Ellison for reasons of his own. No alphabet or chronology need apply. In his introduction to Lester del Rey's story, Ellison explains the prominence is due to general honors that were being accorded del Rey at the time (notably at a science fiction convention in New York) and also that Ellison felt a sense of personal debt. Del Rey belongs to the midcentury group of science fiction writers, with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, but more importantly he was a highly influential editor as well. This shows perhaps most in his language—I'm thinking of Groff Conklin again, the editor whose taste in stories was impeccable, but even a paragraph of his writing could be stultifying. Del Rey's style is more to pile on paragraphs of action with explanations that are scant and slow to come. All whirl and splash but WTF is the meaning of it. In his afterword, del Rey argues it is more allegory than story. Fair enough. It is certainly heady concept. I hesitate to give it away but I'm going to. This is your spoiler alert (actually, something I read tipped me off to it ahead of time and helped my reading, so now I think I'm helping you). The story represents the end of a long law enforcement hunt and capture mission of ... God. Yes, God—that is, Yahweh, Jehovah, the OG Judeo-Christian deist, He Who created all in six days. That guy. He is taken down by Man, or the Usurpers as the apprehended fugitive God calls them in prelude to a perp walk. If you're going for dangerous visions, why not take on the major Western religions and let the blasphemy fly, amirite? Still, for everything that is dull and then for everything that is obvious about this story, it does pack a punch. Del Rey manages a decent biblical tone. "Come forth!" the mission leader tells God as he closes in. "The earth is a holy place and you cannot remain upon it. Our judgment is done and a place is prepared for you." The story is ultimately effective because the blasphemy is so complete. It works to the extent you're invested in anything out of the Abraham branch, which includes Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I'm not that invested. I was confirmed as a Methodist and never went back, and now think of myself as agnostic if anything. But I'm invested enough to have a sense for how deeply transgressive this story is. The only weakness, aside from the dull language, is how calculated it feels to outrage. That said, it's still a little outrageous.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, July 09, 2018

RBG (2018)

This documentary about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg premiered earlier this year at Sundance. I saw it at a packed house in Olympia on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June, with an appreciative audience who clapped and laughed at all the good parts. (This was the week before we got all the bad news from the Supreme Court. We would probably be crying this week.) RBG is a kind of hagiography, I know. How could it not be at this historical moment? Yet in many ways Ginsburg deserves the adulation. We need more heroes like her, and we could use a few more stories like hers too. The picture had utility for me, as I didn't know that much about her life. Family of immigrants, born and raised in Brooklyn, the first college graduate in her family—Ginsburg's beginnings are as humble as her intellect is formidable. She went into law because she was interested in it and then into her branch because of the discrimination she found when she tried to get a job. Her '70s career as a litigator is particularly impressive, setting out as systematically as she could in a shrewd series of cases to lay a foundation for gender equality under the law. Some of the cases are explained in detail—it's good stuff. In that period, Ginsburg argued six cases before the Supreme Court and won five of them. From there it was on to a stellar career in the judiciary, and eventually, of course, to a Supreme Court appointment herself. Her marriage from a young age to a good man who supported her verges on unbelievable, but there it is and this is a documentary. They can't be lying, right? So good for him, good for her, good for all of us. She's a certain role model and their marriage is part of it. It was interesting to see her close friendship with Antonin Scalia—a genuine friendship from all signs, which made him momentarily more palatable. (But I was happy another person interviewed in the picture expressed amazement that she could have such a friendship because for better or worse I still have a hard time with that myself.) It was also interesting to see how Ginsburg regards her latter-day fame, an icon to many as the "Notorious RBG." Her comment about the nickname is that she thinks it makes sense. She has a lot in common with Biggie Smalls. They were both raised in Brooklyn. Applause. It's priceless, as is much of the movie too and RBG herself, in a taciturn but utterly charming kind of way. See it for your feel-goods. God knows we need them in regard to the Supreme Court right now.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Cass Timberlane (1945)

Sinclair Lewis's "novel of husbands and wives" is evidently considered minor in Lewis's canon. Wikipedia never discusses it in the article about him, only listing it with his works. I love it more than anything else I know by Lewis, though I can see it has more flaws than some of his celebrated work (Main Street and maybe Babbitt, though not the dreadful Elmer Gantry). The values and much of the detail in Cass Timberlane are dated, as is the case with most books older than 70 years. But the dynamics between lovers in relationships are drawn with clarity and an astute skepticism that comes of experience. Lewis probably started on it in earnest around the time of his second divorce in 1942. It is often bittersweet and melancholy. The main narrative involves Cass Timberlane, a judge in the fictional medium-sized town of Grand Republic, Minnesota, a prairie town that most resembles Duluth (though it is more inland and explicitly distinguished from Duluth). Timberlane is young for a judge, in his early 40s, and a red-blooded Midwestern white man of a certain type—loves to hunt and fish, etc. He falls for a young woman more than 15 years his junior, Ginny. They go around the mulberry bush, marry after about a year, and then the problems start. As a device obviously inspired by John Dos Passos, Cass Timberlane also includes recurring portraits of Grand Republic citizens under the title An Assemblage of Husbands and Wives. They are often great stand-alone pieces, acutely observed scenes of marriage and its give and take within many different couples. The novel is remarkably candid, especially the troubles between Cass and Ginny. They have a stillborn baby. Ginny is flirtatious, and attracted to other men. She is also diabetic, of all things. The sexual politics are mostly the conservative post-/pre-feminism that prevailed in the '40s. In most ways women are understood to have the disadvantage of men, but they have some ways to compensate. Something about this novel also reminds me of James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce, which is similarly focused on one person, but in relationship with a specific other in a domestic context. Interestingly, the marketing copy on my 1974 mass market paperback of Cass Timberlane is at pains to sell it as weirdly brawny and he-manly: "The towering classic of a man's passions," it says. "He was a man's man with a reputation as big and solid as his name." But let's not kid ourselves. This is a classic woman's story, and that's exactly what I like about it so much. Essential, really.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Back to the Future (1985)

USA, 116 minutes
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Photography: Dean Cundey
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editors: Harry Keramidas, Arthur Schmidt
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, Claudia Wells, Thomas F. Wilson, Huey Lewis, Frances Lee McCain, James Tolkan

Everything about Back to the Future is a little hectic. It was rushed to make an August release date in 1985 and when test screenings started to get standing O's it was rushed further to make an Independence Day release. It was getting standing O's in general release within some 10 weeks of the finish of shooting it. For a few months in 1985, its present-day events, dated quite precisely October 26 and November 5, were still in the future of viewers. Back to the Future turned out to be the #1 moneymaker of 1985 and now sits comfortably in IMDb's curious list of 250 Top Rated Movies, currently #43, just behind Terminator 2 and just ahead of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As movie entertainment goes, it's hard to deny Back to the Future. In retrospect it offers one of the purest examples of '80s teen comedy, complete with Michael J. Fox, designer jeans, feather haircuts, pulsing Huey Lewis soundtrack, and a bunch of good jokes.

But ultimately it defies categorizing—is it science fiction, romantic comedy, coming-of-age, period piece, action / thriller / suspense, or even ... musical? It sits in my head as science fiction, because it's a time travel story, but that's more in the vein of Groundhog Day or Peggy Sue Got Married, where the fantastic events are just the given premise and everything else is more or less about people. On the other hand Back to the Future is also one of those pictures so full of movie suspense rituals you really want to scream sometimes. Oh no! Another thing went wrong! At the worst possible moment! My annoyance probably speaks to the power of the movie to make us care about its characters and believe the situation—I really want to see Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) make it from 1955 back to 1985 in those climactic scenes. Credit much of this to the screenplay by Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis, which is funny and well put together. As can be seen here, Zemeckis is also one of the more gifted students of Steven Spielberg, an executive producer here. The script is tight and scrupulously fair about working through the characters and their motivations. They're integrated so neatly into the events that you don't notice or can forgive the ridiculously unexplainable. Speaking of hectic, the movie hits a pace of 88 miles per hour from the start and never lets it flag or really pads out much and the time goes by like it didn't happen, even when you have to snort at some of its conceits. And you do have to snort at some of its conceits.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Dangerous Visions (1967)

Well, I enjoyed doing the long short story project completed last month—not least because I got to add some of my own horror and mystery genre choices along the way. Even the three main anthologies indulged themselves a little in that regard. But too late, I thought of science fiction, which was also a staple of early reading and ended up mostly shut out of the story project. One Kurt Vonnegut story was not enough (and Vonnegut's story isn't even such a good representation of science fiction). To rectify that, I turned to Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison's landmark science fiction anthology. That was about a year ago, and just as I was preparing to start posting about it came news of Harlan Ellison's death this past June 27, 84 years old. Sad news—he was a formidable, unique, and always interesting writer, editor, and character.

Dangerous Visions is over 50 years old now, and science fiction has gone through multiple eras since. But arguably the collection still has claims on our attention—for one thing, it's the first science fiction anthology ever that was made up only of commissioned work (rather than plundering back issues of SF magazines such as Astounding Stories or Galaxy Science Fiction, which had been the norm and often still is). I remember when I came across Dangerous Visions in the early '70s the stories still had a jazzy charismatic glow of transgressive zing—"dangerous" is probably fair enough.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet?! (1991)

I was sorry to hear about Cynthia Heimel's death at the age of 70 earlier this year because I'd just rescued my copy of this from a box going out the door. Purging exercises have become a regular thing for me for several years now. Heimel's book is a collection of very short pieces, most of which ran in Playboy in the late '80s and alas are not as cackling funny as I remember them. Out on the internet now Heimel is known for the titles of her books. And now I'm doing what all her reviewers do, but I'd quickly like to mention that this and Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I'm Kissing You Goodbye are my favorites. In many ways the persona that Heimel created has to be credited as a primary source for the Carrie Bradshaw character on TV's Sex and the City. I like Heimel's pondering candor about feminism, sex, and realities, but the conservative pressures of the late '80s were not easy for anyone to resist, so she is often torn in many directions as she sorts through her conflicting impulses around monogamy, family, career, and sexuality. Individual sections are devoted to "The Times," "Women," "Men," "Women and Men," and "The Writer's Life." It's not only about sex, love and relationships, but it's mostly about sex, love, and relationships. Unfortunately, it already seems a little dated if only for carrying the flag so valiantly for baby boomers. It was still arguably the flag for youth at the time, but since publication of this book the baby boomers have not acquitted themselves so well (I say this as one of them). In the leadership realm, for example, it has been Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump. Technically, Barack Obama is also a baby boomer, but like most of them born after 1960 he has more in common with the Gen-X crew (exemplified for me, always, in the movie Risky Business). Anyway, we're starting to know better that classifying people by such labels is divisive and we need to cut it out. I think I still felt pretty good about my generation in the late '80s too so I shouldn't hold it against her. But some of these reports, maybe even most of them, feel like details of another planet and way of life. Who are these people and what made them the way they are? For example, the two pieces about porn. In one Heimel invites a group of her guy friends over to watch porn on video. Then she does the same thing with a group of her girlfriends. My first question, which I think should be obvious, is why would anyone think watching porn is a social occasion? Even more disturbing, the guys fall in and act like it is one. They talk about it and notice points of style like it was sports. One was a self-declared blowjob connoisseur and dubbing the tapes as they watched. What in the motherfucking hell? Did such things really go on? I happen to know they are corroborated in Joe Matt's comic books but until now I had been pretty sure he was just making it all up. Live and learn. Godspeed Cynthia Heimel!

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary has its obvious forebears in Rosemary's Baby, Don't Look Now, and, more recently, The Babadook, that is, in "quiet" horror (not looking in your direction, A Quiet Place) based on minimal violence, only gnawing anxiety or other psychology, which may or may not be producing delusions. Journeyman player Toni Colette (Muriel's Wedding, The Sixth Sense, Lucky Them) is called on to perform herculean feats of carrying the story as it wends from an intriguing family dysfunction piece and into more of the eternal chthonic realms, and she pretty much delivers. This is accomplished by using a typical support group as a device for her to give soliloquies and provide backstory, by some really impressive scenes of grief, and by probably too many close-ups of the anguish plastered all over her open-mouthed face. Once Hereditary is fully engaged, after a shocking and impeccably done set piece early, the movie it started to remind me of most was The Amityville Horror. It might have been the insect vermin, but they are both similarly hit and miss projects—very strong when they find ways to wreck your peace, very silly at other times, and the line between is close. Director and writer Ari Aster is on his first feature, with a carefully constructed screenplay that artfully leads to climaxes of specific shock images and vertiginous moments of clarity, spelling out the situation as it advances and unfolds. Annie (Colette) is an artist who specializes in miniaturized room and dollhouse pieces. She is on a deadline for an important gallery show. As the movie begins, her mother has died. Though Annie and her mother were estranged, the family seems like a comfortable and healthy middle-of-the-road liberal educated clan. There are definitely class notes here that add to the unease. The youngest child, her daughter Charlie, has obvious problems of an adolescent 13-year-old, perhaps a bit worse than normal. She's overweight, eats sweets compulsively, and keeps to herself as much as she can, drawing and daydreaming. But we also see things she does to animal corpses that are disturbing. Then the family is altered forever by a horrific accident. Colette delivers powerful scenes of grief here and the movie looks like it might be about the dread and anxieties of families under grief. But along about here a piece of narrative appears to go missing, as we are shown only the vaguest images of the aftermath of the accident, and what we most want to see is deliberately withheld as long as possible. Effective for suspense, yadda yadda, but a lot of important things about family connections are unfortunately left unexplained. Hereditary is entertaining all the way, and still hitting high points late too, but it's more on the order of hustling around trying to make narrative pieces jigger together while still finding its way to those images and moments that work on you, now and later. Recommended with low expectations.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)

Harriet Beecher Stowe's great 19th-century tome—candidate for Great American Novel if ever there was one—turned out to be so much better and more accomplished than I expected when I finally got around to reading it. A real page-turner, in fact. Yes, it's pulpy, a series of cunningly constructed dramatic moments. Others have discussed its place with Dickens, and/or with the Bronte sisters, and still others are all over the discerning ear for dialects. That's all there. It's a great panoramic story grappling with a vital moral issue and it's never less than a good ride. But what impresses me most is hinted at in Abraham Lincoln's quip when he met Stowe in 1862: "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Has any other novel ever had such an impact? Maybe I'm missing something obvious, like Bible stories, which are not exactly the same. The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22—they defined their eras to an extent but they did not start righteous wars. In slave narratives, which came before and after Uncle Tom's Cabin and provided key source material for it, I'm often impressed by the twilight legal status of slaves. They had no legal standing. None. They were property ("chattel," which in law is an item of property other than real estate)—and they were valuable property, about as much per person as a car today, give or take. They were savagely beaten and tortured as a matter of routine. The women were raped and their children were taken away from them and sold as needed to raise capital. The owner, who realized the profit, was often the father. Stowe seizes on all this to construct her wrenching stories. She also penetrates the hypocrisy of the North, equally racist but with a kinder, gentler look. Stowe is also good at drawing white Southerners who are opposed to slavery—their child-like helplessness and sadness. It was also interesting to finally encounter "Uncle Tom" himself, after a lifetime of understanding his name as an insult to African-Americans perceived as subservient or fawning toward whites. Stowe's Uncle Tom is something much different—a strong, decent, and sympathetic character. I can understand resenting or disavowing some of his actions and thoughts, especially his Christianity. But he was living in a world where slavery was the reality and had been for generations, for centuries. It's much the same way we accept capitalism now as the right and proper order, more or less. The laws support it (vigorously) and changing it could well involve violent conflict. That's Harriet Beecher Stowe's accomplishment. Imagine slavery as entrenched as bank control of our economy is now. She wrote a book—a novel—that changed that. The only question left is, where's our book like this?

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Unknown Pleasures (1979)

Over the years the first album by Joy Division has somehow turned as cuddly as a teddy bear or a Coke in the history of rock, which is at least as remarkable a transformation as Ozzy Osbourne reinvented as a doddering papa reality TV show star. Example: the way the (wonderful and mysterious) pulsar cover art of Unknown Pleasures has been turned into a latter-day animated meme industry unto itself, including a pair of textured Doc Martens boots (also available in Power, Corruption & Lies and Technique models). Have they listened to the album? This relatively recent turn might be a result of a 2015 Scientific American article about the album cover, but what this tells us is that even Scientific American is on to Joy Division now. Even Scientific American. The question remains. Have they heard the music? When I think of it—because I don't actually listen to Joy Division that often, full disclosure—I often remember the music as "dreary." But put it on and you'll hear it's a bit more than that. It may be entertaining—it is entertaining—but it is also unnerving, not least because since singer Ian Curtis's shocking suicide in 1980, age 23, we have had the opportunity to view it the way we perhaps should, through the lens of a troubled life. We might have guessed in the first place, after all.

In a way I think both of these responses—the ongoing trivialization of the cover art by popular culture and my impulse to label the music in memory as dreary—are symptomatic and come from approximately the same place. Really, it's just not easy to engage this music on its terms and feel the horrors of Curtis's desperation, which are so visceral and so vividly represented in sound. Because the songs, and especially the production by Martin Hannett, are so good, it's hard to square this circle. You might even feel slightly foolish, or hipster-pretentious, sitting down to listen to it intentionally. Better always to keep things like this slightly buffoonish and at a distance. But Unknown Pleasures is pretty real. Joy Division was pretty real. As we learned, it's well beyond the harmless adolescent angst that is the calling card of popular rock production (from Chuck Berry to Aerosmith and beyond) and instead well into real adolescent angst, as inflected by heartless depression.

Friday, June 22, 2018

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

USA, 120 minutes
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Edmund Naughton, Robert Altman, Brian McKay
Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Music: Leonard Cohen
Editor: Lou Lombardo
Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, William Devane, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy

DVD extras and featurettes on the 2016 Criterion edition of McCabe & Mrs. Miller seem to feel a critical question about this movie is whether or not it is a Western, and if so, what kind (meaning classic versus revisionist in its many labels, anti-, acid, neo-, spaghetti, etc.). So clearing that up from my view, yes, it's a Western. It's set in the Pacific Northwest at approximately the turn of the 20th century. It's very rainy and there's a snowstorm, which is typical of the PNW, but things like ranches, Indians, horses, mountains, six-shooters, and everything you need for a Western are well known in the little burgeoning mining town of Presbyterian Church, Washington—one of the best names I've ever heard for a Western town, by the way. The only thing that might be different, as director and cowriter Robert Altman joked while he was working on it, is that it's not a dusty Western.

I will also say McCabe & Mrs. Miller stands self-consciously in the shadow of directors Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah at least in terms of using an elaborate set piece of grotesque violence in the last third of the movie. This is seen in lots of Westerns from the late '60s and early '70s, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Billy Jack, and including obviously all of Peckinpah's and Leone's work, where it wasn't even reserved so much for the last third but could go first. Look for slo-mo and echoing sound. That's not to say that the death of the only cowboy in McCabe & Mrs. Miller isn't a shocking and effective scene. In many ways the whole movie turns on it.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Oswald's Tale (1995)

I don't consider myself a conspiracy theorist when it comes to the assassination of John Kennedy, but I sure know the rhythms of the story now. I noticed it when I read Stephen King's 11/22/63 novel a few years ago, and again as I revisited Norman Mailer's lengthy journalistic treatment of Lee Harvey Oswald, focusing on his time in Russia. Once again Mailer is working with Lawrence Schiller, his collaborator on The Executioner's Song. With the Soviet Union over and a temporary opening of Russian government in 1993, Mailer and Schiller gained access to KGB documents regarding Oswald's time living in Russia from late 1959 to 1962. They also conducted interviews with people who knew or were aware of him there. Of course the KGB monitored Oswald closely. Even now, nobody really knows what he was doing there. He might have been a crazy mixed-up guy or anything. He was followed around and bugs were placed in his living quarters. What emerges is a much better sense of this mysterious historical figure, for better or worse filtered through Mailer's novelistic instincts. I think on balance it's for the better, because approaching Oswald as a literary character does seem to yield insights into the even greater mystery of the assassination. Following his movements and public statements closely, in combination with the KGB transcripts of his domestic disputes with his Russian wife Marina (who bore him two daughters and of course moved back with him to the US), does seem to provide a clearer view of Oswald. He was unbelievably young, first—just 20 when he defected to the USSR, just 24 when he was gunned down two days after the JFK assassination. So we start from Minsk, in the first half of this book, and then travel all the familiar ways through Cuba and Dallas and New Orleans and Mexico and finally back to Dallas again. One more time we see the Montgomery Ward warehouse down the street. Somehow I know this story. I'm the right age cohort, plus osmosis. People are still trying to figure out the Jack the Ripper murders too, so there's probably little relief in sight. Mailer is persuasive—first that there is a mystery to be solved, and second that it remains less than fully explained, and finally, that Lee Harvey Oswald, followed shortly by Jack Ruby (and 38 years later by 19 terrorists), may be among the luckiest sons of bitches who ever lived in terms of doing one or two things exactly right. I don't know what happened in Dallas that day, nobody does, but following Mailer the lone assassin theory now doesn't seem any less likely than any of the others, given that nothing in this episode is likely. Mailer wants to quarrel with Gerald Posner, whose Case Closed was new at the time, and I like that. He pokes some holes in Posner's case, but it's easy to see they could well be only small holes. The mystery endures. Indeed, that's Mailer's subtitle here: An American Mystery. Worth reading for further osmosis.

In case it's not at the library.