Sunday, December 30, 2018

Up From Slavery (1901)

Booker T. Washington is an interesting American historical figure all the way around and his memoir is a good place to get the basic points. For the full context, as a conservative business leader in the South, you have to dig a little more, and it's complicated. Washington's personal ethos appeared to genuinely hew close to bedrock conservative American puritanism, certainly in terms of traits like work ethic and thrift. What he accomplished in his lifetime with Tuskegee University remains plain amazing. For crying out loud, he built a kiln to make the bricks to raise the buildings while they farmed the rest of the land. There is something at once inspiring and exhausting about this story. Why did it have to be that hard? Washington is an obvious source for the so-called Jackie Robinson rules as we understand and still live by them now—as an African American you always have to be better and you can never get mad or even complain. Washington was born into slavery and raised in a world where he would never get a break. He had to be grateful for even the smallest concession—a loan, say, which could be easily obtained by most white men—and he had to be silent on racism. He's still mostly silent about it here. He is quick to criticize members of "my race" and slow to condemn whites. So among other things Up From Slavery is a look into the strange ways of the South in the transition period from Reconstruction to Jim Crow. Washington is amazed, on his first visit to the North, that he can stay in a hotel where whites stay. It's poignantly sad in those terms. The facts of the shabby treatment of former slaves are mostly left out, and it seems like a strange absence now. Yet who can fail to be impressed with what Washington did? He built a kiln to make the bricks to raise the buildings for a university campus while he farmed the rest of the land for food. Like the best memoirs his book is a pleasure to read, with rambling anecdotes and lots of insight, some of which seems to me now harsher than necessary. But then he accomplished all that he did. Still, Up From Slavery has strange gaps, not just on racism. I got the feeling we're not getting the whole story on everything with his three marriages, for example. But it's great on Tuskegee, and an affecting landmark of where race relations were in America, 40 years on from Fort Sumter.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 28, 2018

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

USA, 115 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Photography: Allen Daviau
Music: John Williams
Editor: Carol Littleton
Cast: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, K.C. Martel, Sean Frye, C. Thomas Howell, Debra Winger

Director Steven Spielberg was already big time in 1982, complete with a certified flop and the oomph to slog on through (1941, which I still haven't seen, though it is presently at #236 in my Netflix queue so I'm getting there). He had shown he could do horror (Duel, Jaws), science fiction (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), big budget action adventure (Raiders of the Lost Ark), and even desperate crazy kids relationship romance (The Sugarland Express). But a movie intended expressly to make you cry, well, even if it's all tarted up with science fiction trimmings or whatever, that seemed like a stretch for popular culture and for me, at least at the time. Eventually—it started slow as blockbusters go—E.T. turned out to be a giant smash, overtaking Star Wars in 1983 as the highest-grossing film of all time. It still sits at #4 on the all-time list adjusted for inflation at Box Office Mojo, behind only Gone With the Wind, Star Wars (resurgent doubtless under the weight of its endless rereleases), and The Sound of Music. It's just ahead of Titanic, DeMille's second Ten Commandments, and Jaws—Spielberg is the only director in the top 10 with more than one movie.

I finally did see E.T. the summer it was released, and I cried at all the right parts I'm sure, but it felt a little porny, and feels even more so now. The movie's rise to popularity suggests an interesting trajectory—it holds top 10 box office records for ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th weekends, but is much lower for earlier weekends. Is that repeat viewers, or word of mouth, or some combination? Anyway, the idea of going to see a movie because it would make you cry was new and exotic, though I later realized of course it's one of the oldest traditions of storytelling there is. My first experience had been a TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz I happened to sit down to watch by myself when I was 21. It was disconcerting to find myself overwhelmed by emotion over things like Kansas, ruby slippers, and no place like home, but there I was, and it wasn't altogether unpleasant, once the tears and tender convulsions stopped—kind of cathartic. Now I'm old and sentimental and cry at anything that resembles kindness, from great moments in film and literature all the way down to soft drink and auto insurance commercials. I use it as a certain indicator. If it can make me cry I want to know why, even the commercials—especially the commercials. That's how I've decided it's generally kindness that sets me off, and we can all benefit from more of that.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

"Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird" (1967)

Sonya Dorman's story fits the general tone of extremity that anthology editor Harlan Ellison seemed to be looking for in the Dangerous Visions collection. I wish I knew more about the genesis of many of these stories, whether directly commissioned or pulled out of a slush pile from a general call, because in a way I think there has to be an interesting story behind this one beyond what Ellison and Dorman tell us in their notes. By the way, Dorman makes three women versus 29 men for the collection, which is pathetic but sadly miles ahead of most science fiction and horror collections of the time. Like some others here, Dorman is entirely unknown to me. In this story the future has become one of scarcity and cannibalism. It's a little reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The action involves a woman running with an air of desperation and remembering scenes of her past. So again we have the in media res treatment, concrete action with conceptual explanation half a step behind and kind of bogging things down. Not that meaningless action is ever that interesting, and in this case the running (presumably for her life) is not at all interesting. However, the scenes of human carcasses as butcher product are vividly imagined. They include babies, as did The Road. I'm not saying McCarthy owes her anything—his novel is infinitely better than this story. But Dorman was there first in many of these details. Ellison mentions in his introduction that Dorman was also a dog breeder, which might explain a little the cold familiarity with blunt facts of life, death, birth, and survival. And eating meat. It's a bit muddled and carried away with itself but it goes to deep and dark places. Its greatest strength is the horrors it casually imagines. However uninspired and obtuse it might seem now, it's also brave to write something like this and put your name on it. According to the internet, Dorman also wrote poetry, which reminds me, the title of this story comes from a headnote, which in turn comes from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Enough said about the state of poetry in 1967. But I like the title, the loony imperative and the baby talk repetition. It's a good foreshadow of what's to come in the story.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, December 23, 2018

To the Lighthouse (1927)

This is a short novel but not so easy. Things don't "happen" as they do in more conventional narrative (scare quotes as feeble approximation). I was tempted to say nothing at all happens, but then I thought about it. Death, of course, has to be counted as something that happens—sometimes I think it's the only thing that does. And there are three of them here, including arguably the main character, Mrs. Ramsay, a family matriarch and mother of eight children (two of whom are the other deaths). But these things "happen" in the shortest section (of three), called "Time Passes," which specifically lists out events. The first section, the longest, takes place at a summer house used by the Ramsays, their friends, and extended family. They decide to go on a day trip the next day to a nearby lighthouse. Then they decide not to. The first half of the book is spent leaping from head to head of various characters and dwelling there awhile. What's hard is learning the implied assumptions of each new character as we eavesdrop on their thoughts and see from their points of view. There's a lot of reading followed by pauses to assemble and interpret the known facts into a concrete picture. I was reading it for the first time—I suspect it deepens and enriches some returning to it. Virginia Woolf is a skillful and sensuous writer. The ideas are prolific and rich. One theme, for example, is the choices offered to women for creativity and what they mean. Mrs. Ramsay has eight children. Lily Briscoe is an unmarried painter in her 30s (in her 40s in the last section). The novel is autobiographical, based on Woolf's summers growing up in an educated and professional family. Mr. Ramsay is a model of Woolf's father, a man of letters, an editor and a critic. The cast on hand in To the Lighthouse is literate and artistic to a person, and I like that, though I admit I come to it with some class resentment. I'd avoided the novel anyway for its reputation as being difficult. I was also wary of its preoccupations with women's issues in a context of privilege. But Woolf's handling makes it all work. She is very sharp and clear-sighted—Mrs. Ramsay may deserve to be ranked with greatest fictional characters such as Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, or Elizabeth Bennet. Many of the characters here, in fact, are etched and memorable.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

"Ersatz" (1967)

You and I may know Henry Slesar's work better than we suspect. At the time of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology he had been an "advertising man" for many years. From there he moved on to head writer for a daytime soap, The Edge of Night. And all along he wrote stories, novels, and screenplays. In fact—and this is probably my own best chance for knowing his work—he contributed lots of scripts to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and even Batman and 77 Sunset Strip. He also collaborated with Ellison on various projects, which brings us back to this collection. In his introduction Ellison says Slesar was one of the collaborators he most enjoyed working with, by way of noting how unsatisfying it often can be for both parties. "Ersatz" is a short short—Ellison not only labels it that but also notes the word count (1,100) and points out that his introduction is nearly twice as long. Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles around this joint. Slesar is obviously comfortable with the compressions, tight corners, and twist endings of the form. But the story idea itself is not that imposing or inspired. It's a post-apocalyptic future with a dwindling population and harsh conditions. Endless war and severe privation—that kind of thing. A wandering soldier finds shelter in a "Peace Station," erected systematically for the purpose as part of the war infrastructure. All the amenities found there are artificial: chemical beef, cigarettes made of "treated wool fibers," bread made from seaweed, etc. A woman serves him food but now he has a new hunger—for her. This story is a short short, it has a twist ending, and I am now about to reveal it. She is not a woman but a man in a woman costume. Thus the story ends badly dated—homophobic, transphobic, or both, we would say. Slesar is a good writer. The language is clear and brisk, setting out its ideas and concrete details with economy and clarity. But its assumptions—gay sex as a telltale symptom of a blasted and ruined society, or something like that—strike an irredeemable sour note. That makes it much more an odd story of the past than one with anything interesting to say about the future.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, December 17, 2018

Wildlife (2018)

I know what tipped me off was the setting in Great Falls, Montana, along with the focus on domestic trouble for a young couple with a teenage boy, but Wildlife felt like a story by Richard Ford even before I realized he's the author of the source novel, published in 1990. But I was otherwise distracted by a gnat storm of annoyances. The physical resemblance of Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould)—the aforementioned teenage boy—to first-time director and cowriter Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Love & Mercy). The fact that, doing the math on this period piece set explicitly in 1960, that very same Joe was born in 1946, the same year as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, which inevitably makes it a baby boomer coming-of-age story—no surprise as a Ford property, but still, haven't we had enough of those? Then there was a jackass in the row ahead of me who had to keep checking his phone. Last but not least, it was a good turnout for an afternoon show, but mostly groups of four or six older people on outings who treated the place like a living room. Oh, also, while this movie has wildfires and it has wild life, it does not actually have any wildlife, except of course metaphorically. Even that annoyed me, as in my head I keep thinking of the movie now as Wildfire and then have to correct myself. Wait, that reminds me, one more—errant husband Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a failing golf pro who takes off for most of the movie to fight wildfires in the Montana woods—there's even a very impressive shot of one, though handled weirdly. But it feels like it's intended to reflect what has been going on with recent horrific seasons of wildfires. Instead, it just feels convenient and minimizing, implying it has been going on for as long as we can remember. The main pitch on Wildlife, as you may have heard, is Carey Mulligan's performance as Jeanette Brinson, which is as good as billed, given all the changes Jeanette is put through as a pretty girl lost in a big country. Unfortunately, the picture is hampered by a weak screenplay that doesn't seem to be trying very hard. Maybe that's the Ford novel—I haven't read it. It's not surprising that Dano would serve up an actors' showcase for his first time directing—arguably, it's what he knows. I would have been more comfortable if Oxenbould didn't look so much like Dano, because that makes the picture look too much like a vanity piece. The production design is also above average, with lots of credible detail for 1960. But good performances, costumes, and sets sadly turn out to be slender reeds on which to build a whole feature film when the story itself goes so flat.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Spooky Art (2003)

This started out pretty well—a kind of late annex to Advertisements for Myself, focused specifically on writing and reading—but grew more insular and maundering as it went. I liked Mailer's takes on contemporaneous writers in Advertisements and looked forward to an update. But that pretty much amounted here only to Jonathan Franzen, which is laughably paltry in the first place, never mind Mailer had little of interest to say about him. He's dismissive of Toni Morrison, with little insight. But when he started relitigating the battle for D.H. Lawrence with Kate Millet (possibly verbatim from one of his worst books, The Prisoner of Sex) I wanted to cry it was so pitiful. In 2003 Mailer had much more authority as a novelist, so his early pieces on the practical aspects of the life were often interesting. I liked his revelations of what went into his work even when I didn't know the work itself, such as his second and third novels Barbary Shore and The Deer Park. As a critic he is somewhat less interesting and more problematic. He talks way too much about Ernest Hemingway without any special understanding, useful or otherwise. But I appreciate Mailer's reverence for the Russians, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the Beatles and Rolling Stones of great literature. Mailer talks a lot about Stendhal too, in nearly as glowing terms. So that makes Mailer and Al Gore who think he's one of the best. Guess I'll have to finally give him a try if I can. I like Mailer's general willingness to entertain nonsense such as magic or God or Satan, because I'm actually so willing to entertain it myself. So I looked forward to a longish piece called "The Occult." Alas, like the book itself it starts out well, but then wanders off on tangents with minimal interest, or worse, with elements of Mailer's ego-driven agenda on display too much. The same is true of the piece called "Film." He's predictably weird on movies but never really lands on anything solid. Come to the source notes at the end of the book and it's evident The Spooky Art is all cribbed from published and semi-published material—lectures, interviews, magazine pieces. Thus by definition there is nothing new here. And Mailer's old ideas were getting long in the tooth by then to say the least. So, sadly, there's not much of value to this one. It might even be his worst—although I haven't read all of them.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Intolerance (1916)

Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages, USA, 197 minutes
Director: D.W. Griffith
Writers: Hettie Grey Baker, Tod Browning, D.W. Griffith, Anita Loos, Mary H. O'Connor, Walt Whitman, Frank E. Woods
Photography: G.W. Bitzer
Music: Joseph Turrin (2002)
Editors: D.W. Griffith, James Smith, Rose Smith
Cast: 125,000 men and women, 7,500 horses, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, Margery Wilson, Eugene Pallette, Spottiswoode Aitken, Constance Talmadge, Elmer Clifton, Alfred Paget, Seena Owen, George Siegmann, Elmo Lincoln, Howard Gaye, Lillian Langdon, Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Reid, Donald Crisp, W.S. Van Dyke, Frank Borzage, Tod Browning, King Vidor, Erich von Stroheim

In 1971, Orson Welles hosted a PBS broadcast of Intolerance which naturally he introduced with ringing praise. Then, for a closing segment, he came back, looking as if he had actually watched the film just then too—God knows what version PBS was showing in 1971. But Welles appeared to be still in the throes of it, marveling over its intricate complications, worrying it was too sophisticated for audiences in 1916 and perhaps 1971 too. He suggested some obvious ways people might think it was a failure, or didn't work, but finished, "That failure remains one of the great successes in the history of cinema." My own experience is that I first saw parts of Intolerance in a film class in college—God knows what parts they were in 1981, but I remember the Babylon scenes and yellow tinting. It was the first movie the class looked at and the lesson went toward the same end as Welles's assessment, with art history detail. Intolerance is big in every way—long, complicated, elaborate, teeming, pretentious, convoluted, nearly whirling out of control, especially in the last hour, when it stays on its feet mostly by the expedient of cutting away to one after another of its four ongoing stories—or to blue-tinted Lillian Gish rocking the Walt Whitman, "out of the cradle, endlessly rocking"—cutting back and forth like the guy spinning plates at the top of sticks. It's like 76 open air three-ring circuses have taken over the downtown of your city. Who would think to do it?

Obviously, the tycoon moviemaker D.W. Griffith, son of a Kentucky farmer. But here's the thing. Intolerance always seems to go to the head of the class on all these invention-of-cinema-as-we-know-it-today lists of early movies. I'm writing about it today because it's so high on the big list of movies at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, presently #105 and once as high as #44. Yet two movies that can lay claim to being essential sources for Intolerance are lower—the Italian epic Cabiria, from 1914, does not even make the list of also-rans that takes the list up to 2,000 titles, and Griffith's own Birth of a Nation from 1915 is down at #280. Oh wait, I think I slipped into my assertion sideways there so let me be more straightforward. Griffith's great movie, in this dawn-of-cinema sweepstakes, is The Birth of a Nation. Intolerance muddles up its narrative force for the sake of ambitious cross-cutting experimentation that ultimately does not work. The Birth of a Nation is the birth of epic narrative cinema, practically born full grown. But it's so noxious thematically that there appears to be some tendency to overlook much the same swill in Intolerance, because it's wrapped into the picture a little more discreetly. This is the D.W. Griffith problem.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

"What Happened to Auguste Clarot?" (1967)

Larry Eisenberg is a name I don't know. From Harlan Ellison's introduction and also Wikipedia, it sounds as if he published nearly as much in the way of limericks as science fiction. Yes, that's right, limericks. Who knew there was a market? Ellison has affection for Eisenberg, and for this story, but mostly in the way of a kind of practical joke. The story, which is very short, is more a parody of hardboiled detective fiction though all decked out with science fiction trappings. A Nobel-winning chemist disappeared without a trace one day and the news story was a sensation for a time. Now the narrator of this story, a journalist, has been assigned to revisit the case years later, a bit like the frame stories in Citizen Kane and Velvet Goldmine, and off we go. The story is dense with comic detail, which sometimes works, as with an editor who insists on communicating telepathically with his staff. They're left guessing, and don't always guess right. But the story is pointless, even as it drags around its heavy chains of detail. In many ways (and I'm not trying to conflate limericks with literature) Eisenberg writes with that inert quality so many poets bring to prose. They are so used to compressing lots of information artfully into the fewest possible words, or something like it. The story elements are so familiar I could reorient myself whenever another one came along, such as the appearance of a femme fatale, hostile encounters with authorities, a ritual beating, etc. But yes, I'm sorry to say, even in the space of six printed pages I found myself lost in thickets. Which is not to say that each paragraph, taken on its own, isn't entertaining. They are. They all are. This is like the stand-up comic portion of the variety show. It doesn't have anything to do with detective fiction. It's just using the tropes. It's even weaker as science fiction. It's a weird world, yes. People say and do and seem to believe some strange things (like the would-be telepathic editor). But there's nothing to bind or unify it beyond the formal parodies. Eisenberg reports in his afterword that the story was a satisfaction to produce. Ellison in his introduction seems a little nervous about including it at all. Makes me think there might have been something on the order of trading favors behind this story. But what do I know? It's good for a laugh.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Top 40

1. XXXTentacion, "Sad!" (2:46)
2. Seinabo Sey, "I Owe You Nothing" (2:59)
3. Moby, "The Sorrow Tree (EastWest Session)" (3:48)
4. Flight Mode, "It's So Nice" (9:12)
5. Francois Elie Roulin, "Woodpecker Groove" (1:32)
6. Laura Jean, "Girls on the TV" (5:55)
7. Saweetie feat. Kehlani, "Icy Girl" (2:28)
8. Bazzi, "Myself" (2:47)
9. Deaf Wish, "FFS" (2:13)
10. Prana Crafter, "Holy Tempel of Flow" (5:07)
11. Nicki Minaj, "Barbie Dreams" (4:39)
12. Shawn Mendes, "In My Blood" (3:31)
13. Kacey Musgraves, "Butterflies" (3:39)
14. Panic! at the Disco, "Say Amen (Saturday Night)" (3:09)
15. Kids See Ghosts, "Reborn" (5:24)
16. Bebe Rexha, "I'm a Mess" (3:15)
17. Jon Hassell, "Pastorale Vassant" (3:59)
18. Drake, "Nonstop" (3:58)
19. Natalie Prass, "Short Court Style" (3:43)
20. Post Malone, "Psycho" (3:41)
21. Chloe x Halle, "Happy Without Me" (3:27)
22. Neneh Cherry, "Kong" (4:25)
23. All Saints, "After All" (4:36)
24. Kali Uchis, "Killer" (2:52)
25. Clean Bandit feat. Demi Lovato, "Solo" (3:42)
26. Calvin Harris & Sam Smith, "Promises" (3:33)
27. Windhand, "Diablerie" (5:21)
28. Eminem, "Fall" (4:22)
29. Boy Azooga, "Loner Boogie" (2:05)
30. Lovelytheband, "Broken" (3:25)
31. Joyce Manor, "Silly Games" (2:35)
32. Pink Slips, "Trigger" (3:24)
33. Vaccines, "I Can't Quit" (2:43)
34. Tiesto, "Jackie Chan" (3:35)
35. Chemical Brothers, "Free Yourself" (5:03)
36. Fucked Up, "Dose Your Dreams" (5:29)
37. Fucked Up, "Accelerate" (5:29)
38. Petite Noir, "Beach" (4:11)
39. Denzel Curry, "Vengeance" (4:00)
40. Aya Nakamura, "Copines" (2:50)

thnx: Billboard, Spin, Skip D. Expense, The Stranger, Singles Jukebox, social media happenstance, once in a while the radio

Monday, December 10, 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Biographer Lee Israel's career as a literary forger might sound quaintly exotic or like small potatoes, and it's surely both of those, but all the talent onboard this picture can't help making it good. Director Marielle Heller's previous feature, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was just as full of surprises and just as shockingly candid too. Cowriter Nicole Holofcener (director and writer of Friends With Money, Please Give, and many more all good) has a wonderful ease with natural small-scale domestic scenes. Richard E. Grant shows up to reprise a version of his role in the stupendous Withnail & I from 1987. And Melissa McCarthy turns in an achingly beautiful and precise performance as the hard-drinking Israel, a bitter literary misanthrope out of the school of 20th century Manhattan bohemia. Can You Ever Forgive Me? works in lots of ways, as a probing look into the life of a bookish middle-aged loner (saw a lot of myself in her), as a caper movie forgery division, as a nostalgic meditation on New York City, as a wrenching drama, and even as a thriller. Lee Israel was a real person, the whole thing is based on a true story, it must be Oscar season! Israel, born in 1939, broke in as a magazine feature writer in the '60s with a piece for Esquire on Katharine Hepburn. Eventually she wrote biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen (a bestseller in 1980), and Estee Lauder. Then her career went south. She was a classic of the type of New York literati who is out of step and yet so swimmingly in it, from Ring Lardner to Fran Lebowitz. In the movie, Israel's story is she's working on a Fanny Brice biography. No one knows who Fanny Brice is, a continuing wound to her—kind of slapstick in its repetitions, but always painful. Now she's going broke, three months behind on the rent and owing everyone she sees money. Her vet won't even look at her sick cat until she comes up with money. Her agent (Jane Curtin) knows she will never be able to sell her work again and tells Israel, in a brutal confrontation in her office, to find another line of work. So she does, as one thing leads to another and we soon enter the damp world of obsessive collectors willing to pay high prices for objects graced by celebrity. In this case, it's letters from New York's midcentury toast of the town, Noel Coward, Edna Ferber, Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks, Lillian Hellman, etc. The big kahuna, of course, is Dorothy Parker as usual. Me, I'm a little tired of glorying up those writers again, good as they are, but OK. It works as context for all the harrowing places this movie manages to go. Can You Ever Forgive Me? gets to be downright gripping once she goes into business with the forgeries—you know she can't possibly get away with it for long. McCarthy and Grant are just great and so is Lee Israel's story. This one might surprise you.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

South and West (2017)

It's tempting to get excited and jump up and down and want to compare Joan Didion's latest, some notebook writing from the '70s, with something like VU and Another View, the lost Velvet Underground albums that emerged in the mid-'80s. That might be overstating, but the key is that this is way good stuff, from arguably the peak of her writing powers, and with those powers on display. It's two separate sets of notes for pieces Didion never wrote, one from 1970 as she traveled the South, the other from 1976 in California, revolving around Patty Hearst. The first part, on the South, is much the bulk of the book and the best part too. The California stuff is more like a reprisal of her 2003 meditation on California, Where I Was From. But Joan Didion (and John Gregory Dunne) traveling the South in 1970 is priceless. All the book's blurbers want it to be a prescient look into America's future, which no one in 1970 expected. But all the cant and rhetoric of reflexive patriotism and instant dismissal of progressive ideas on moral grounds already lived in the South of 1970. It's probably more fair to say it never stopped living there in the first place. If anything, it was more raw back then. School integration is not just a fresh topic, but still ongoing. And the wearisome oppression of the South by political correctness is well underway. Natives, such as the white owner of a radio station in Meridian, Mississippi, that features black music, speak warily of racial issues, apparently trying to tone down the racism, apparently without knowing how to, leading to some tendency for an aggrieved defensive tone. At the same time it's also comically apparent that Didion's arrogance and "coastal elitism" (scare quotes) are just as much in play in these encounters, even through the screen of her own writing. Joan Didion is a bit of a name-dropper and usually haughty about food. She also reviews the swimming pools at the motels they stay in, a telltale preoccupation. It's possible that, in the editing, some of the Blue v. Red contrasts that define all American politics today and have reached such a toxic new crescendo with the rise of Donald Trump may have been sharpened for the sake of our era. Of course, these notebook passages are as crystalline as all Didion prose. She went to the South in 1970 looking for antecedents to the culture of the West, where so many Southerners moved after the Civil War. She contrasts the sense of the burden of history in the South with the attempt to erase history in the West. As usual, the greatest pleasures are in Didion's sharp, acerbic eye and ear for details. This book is too short, and somewhat uneven, but so were those lost Velvet Underground albums.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Brief Encounter (1945)

UK, 86 minutes
Director: David Lean
Writers: Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame
Photography: Robert Krasker
Music: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Editor: Jack Harris
Cast: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Cyril Raymond, Joyce Carey, Stanley Holloway, Everley Gregg

Producer, cowriter, and head mastermind Noel Coward made a deliberate choice to set Brief Encounter in prewar times, even with blackouts, screaming V-2 rockets, and World War II raging along during production. He wanted the story to be more one about the universal human condition and less one obscured by fog-of-war urgencies (and/or excuses). Yet inevitably, even with its narrow focus on a love affair between two people married but not to each other, Brief Encounter bears the plucky stamp of the "keep calm and carry on" ethos, a kind of way of life that is equal parts internal fortitude and cheery manner and all British. Ultimately that makes this movie something of a strange beast, a chaste meditation on illicit sexual attraction never consummated. Somehow it came together to create one of the greatest movie romances ever made.

In many ways, Brief Encounter is another one of those movies like The Wizard of Oz or Casablanca that amounts to a uniquely successful collaboration. Coward basically wrote every damn witty graceful word, cabling in some of the revisions from a war front where he was entertaining troops, and he is the one who had the good sense to insist for the score on pounding relentlessly Sergei Rachmaninoff's swooning Piano Concerto No. 2. But director David Lean quietly structured this picture in any number of clever and even brilliant ways, packing it full of careful symmetries, to make it what it is, and Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson is genuinely the star—her face or her voice in narration populate practically every frame. For whatever reason, Wikipedia does not classify Brief Encounter as a "woman's picture," though it is that rarest picture for its times—a woman's story, not only told from her point of view, but literally by her. In fact, Johnson is so singular that she takes some getting used to—working on me like a kind of Sandra Bernhard figure strained through the reserved Laura Bush. I did not understand what the big deal was about this movie until I happened to look at it a second time. Ever since, it only gets better.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

"If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" (1967)

Theodore Sturgeon is probably the best-known old school science fiction writer in the Dangerous Visions collection. Lester del Rey, Frederik Pohl, and Poul Anderson count too, but they come up short of Sturgeon's stature. I've been talking lately about the "Is God Dead?" cover of Time magazine as a likely source of some of these stories, but Sturgeon's story looks to a very different one: Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein, of course, is on the short list of revered science fiction writers of his generation, in the '40s and '50s, with Isaac Asimov and maybe Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. With Stranger, in the '60s, Heinlein seemed to shift gears away from "hard" science fiction and conservative politics into radical proto-hippie ideas of free love. (I say "seemed" because the whole thing stinks to high heaven when you get into the details of the novel.) Sturgeon is taking those ideas another step further and into incestDanger, Will Robinson! The story is set so far in the future that the sun going nova is a plot point, leading to a human diaspora that is at least galactic, if not universal, thanks to technology. I must say, humans do not appear to have changed much in the 7.6 billion years between now and then. At any rate, as planetary civilizations have slowly reached out and connected for purposes of trade, the hero of this long story (or novella, whatever) discovers a planet with fabulous resources but one with which no one wants to trade. He is Charli Bux, a sort of roustabout traveling man living on planetary trade work. The planet is Vexvelt. The reason it is shunned it because its culture practices incest. It's not just that the natives of Vexvelt don't recognize it as a taboo, but there it is even considered a desirable norm. In a way, the story is good at forcing you to look at taboo itself, because honestly I never got far past feeling like it was icky. They are a lusty bunch, these Veltvexians—it's not just incest, but more broadly free love is how they roll. There might be a reasonable case against the concerns of inbreeding and congenital birth defects. Maybe it doesn't apply to Veltvexians? If so, that's important to mention. Otherwise the Veltvexian arguments often have the stink of someone working on a reluctant partner to put out, as if they're made with raging hard-ons. I know my response to the story is probably more like my response to the taboo. It's actually a perfectly engaging story, told with skill, about a subject that makes me squirm to think about for long. So sure, OK, let's call it dangerous. Just get it away from me.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Against Everything (2016)

Mark Greif is not nearly as disagreeable as the title of his collection of essays might make him sound. He's new to me but others likely know him from his connection since 2004 with the literary magazine n+1. Some of his pieces are formally against this or that: exercise, foodie values, "teen" porn. He's not always exactly against what he says he's against—exercise, for example (though some of his ideas on it did exercise me a little)—but rather with the social ideas and norms that cluster around them. He's always serious, even when his subjects seem most playful, and he ranges wide—from Radiohead, rap, and reality TV (yes, Donald Trump has a brief cameo) to the post-9/11 military miasma to the Occupy movement to police brutality. For his literary foundations he looks to Henry David Thoreau (Greif grew up in the Boston suburbs, not far from Walden Pond) and Gustave Flaubert, noting they lived at almost exactly the same time, born four years apart, and yet are rarely studied together. Rectifying that, Greif sees them as approximate avatars of two philosophical schools now generally derided and/or misunderstood—aestheticism (Flaubert) and perfectionism (Thoreau). Perhaps Greif's bravest piece here is a four-pronged attempt to articulate a critique of the meaning of life. But music may be where Greif is most interesting. I'm not so sure about his Radiohead discussion, but that's because I'm still not so sure about Radiohead. His piece on rap is insightful and interesting, built around his attempt to learn how to do it by trying to learn famous raps. Then there is a piece about punk-rock, which drifts back and gets very sharp on the Velvet Underground. Especially in his music writing I was acutely aware of our age difference—Greif was born in 1975, almost exactly 20 years younger than me (one more notch back, if it doesn't confuse the issue, would take us to Woody Allen, born in 1935). Interestingly enough, Greif identifies a fork in the road for himself in 1987 between postpunk and hip hop, and feels now he made the wrong choice going with postpunk. That's a feeling I know too. Some real good stuff here.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

"Shall the Dust Praise Thee?" (1967)

Once again, with Damon Knight's contribution to the Dangerous Visions collection, we find a generally incompetent monotheistic God at the center of things, and once again I am put in mind of the 1966 Time magazine cover, "Is God Dead?" It may be too easy to speculate it made such an impression on editor Harlan Ellison and/or these writers. But a feeble and useless if not dead God does seem to be one certain epitome of a dangerous vision here, as it occurs more than once. Maybe it's even true enough, per existentialist thought and so on. Then there is the matter of Ellison's introduction to the story, which is weird. It gave me the impression Ellison didn't care much for Knight at the time, though he tries to pass it off as a joke. In turn, Knight's clipped afterword seems to confirm a strained relationship. The story itself is very short, about five pages. God and a posse of angels have returned to Earth for Judgment Day, but no one is home. Nuclear war seems the likely reason. Upon looking around for answers, God finds a sardonic message etched into a stone by those about to pass: "WE WERE HERE. WHERE WERE YOU?" So it goes in the worlds of faith and faithlessness, and I'm sure I don't know what it has to do with science fiction, dangerous or otherwise. You're better off contemplating that cover of Time as far as I'm concerned. Knight's afterword, though very short, sounds familiar themes of the aggrieved science fiction writer—well, maybe more generally all writers. When he first wrote the story and tried to publish it via his agent, Knight writes, "my then agent returned it with loathing, and told me I might possibly send it to the Atheist Journal in Moscow." Ba-da-boom—Cold War times, Cold War times. I don't like the story that much either, but more because it feels kind of lazy. I'm not averse to this preoccupation with religion in self-consciously controversial work (which is maybe all that "dangerous" means after all), just surprised that it was where so many science fiction writers would think to go in 1967. I want to think it's the influence of Ellison, but then his story was not focused on religion at all. I'm telling you, it's that Time cover.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, November 26, 2018

Widows (2018)

From the preview, which I liked and motivated me to see Widows sooner rather than later, it looked like it might be a kind of all-star jamboree Ocean's Digits play, but with women. Except I knew that movie already came out last summer—it was called Ocean's Eight—and I knew it was unlikely that director and cowriter Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Hunger) would get involved in such a project anyway, paycheck or no. But it's still a high-stakes thriller all the way, and no cute bantering either. Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) is a master thief, the elaborate heist his specialty. His last job went south bad and now he's dead, appearing in tender flashbacks. All the cash he stole was burned in the firebombing and SWAT attack and now the offended owner of that cash has made it clear to Rawlings's widow Veronica (Viola Davis) that he expects her to make it right. Naturally she decides to reach out to the other widows in that last job and see if they're interested in pulling off a highly dangerous caper. Naturally they are. So Widows is indeed a jazzy caper movie, as advertised, but its detailed story, vivid imagery, and intricate motivations have all the icy precision of a season of The Wire unfolding. Set in Chicago, where life appears to be hard at all times but there's a lot of money (from drugs, from jewelry, from politics), Widows takes its time developing its many angles, letting the elements assemble one at a time, with a handful of surprises up its sleeve. It plays fast and loose with its own credibility here and there, the twists and turns can be a little too surprising, and more often convenient, and there are too many of them. After being a caper movie, however, and then after being a Steve McQueen art film, Widows turns to a third theory for existence—Oscar bait. By that I mean specifically the casting, with players lining up in their respective queues and working the paces: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting, etc. They are dazzling on paper and they're not bad in the picture either: Davis (Fences, The Help), Colin Farrell (In Bruges, Minority Report), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther, Get Out), Michelle Rodriguez (Avatar, multiple Fast and Furious movies), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby, Guardians of the Galaxy), Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook), and Garret Dillahunt (Deadwood, No Country for Old Men), among others. Plus also, Robert Duvall (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) hams it up cackling Eli Wallach style and Neeson flexes his hardass bastard chops (for the 10 millionth time). Widows is a pretty good time, with enough substance, complexity, and inspired filmmaking that it might be worth seeing again too.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

His Promised Land (1886)

John P. Parker's slave narrative was never actually published until 1996, but editor and historian Stuart Seely Sprague makes a thorough and painstaking job of it. Parker was a freed slave as of 1845, at the age of 18, who worked out of Ripley, Ohio, "running off" Kentucky slaves by way of the Underground Railroad. Twenty years after the Civil War the reporter Frank M. Gregg tracked him down and interviewed him. Gregg's interest was primarily in verifying the factual basis for the Eliza scene in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which involves a young woman escaping with her baby across the melting ice of the late-winter Ohio River. Slaveholders and other Southerners took an interest in debunking it as implausible, but Gregg wanted to prove it. Parker died in 1900. His narrative had to go unpublished in his lifetime because of the danger the story represented to himself and family, both legally and personally. It's harder to say why it went unpublished for nearly a century after his death, but the reasons are not hard to guess: lack of interest as African-American liberation was replaced by Jim Crow laws and Confederacy memorials. Still, Parker may be the single most heroic figure in all these slave narratives, smart, brave, and committed to freedom. "Freedom" has become a dangerously inapproximate word these days, but in Parker's case it's pretty clear: "freedom" means freedom from enslavement. As always, the details of the context—notably the high value of slaves—contributes to understanding the difficulty of ending it once it had become an institution. As always, there is the mystery of seeing Americans accept it so readily, often aiding the slaveholders rather than the slaves. Parker's story is fragmented because of the way it made it into print. Some sections are simply missing. But it also contains some of the most exciting scenes in slave literature, with anecdotes of amazing adventures. They are too short and there are not enough of them, but they will do. Parker earns his bona fides and then some here as a genuine American hero. He did not have to stay in Ripley and help runaway slaves. As a shrewd and successful businessman, with several patents to his name for metalworking inventions, he could have stayed in Ripley and let the runaways see to themselves. But he did not. Partly out of hatred for slavery and slaveholders, partly for the thrill of what it involved, he spent his nights for years on exceedingly dangerous work. We still need more like him.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Elephant (2003)

USA, 81 minutes
Director / writer / editor: Gus Van Sant
Photography: Harris Savides
Music: Ludwig van Beethoven
Cast: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, Kristen Hicks, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Alicia Miles, Timothy Bottoms, Matt Malloy

It's not possible to deny the power of Gus Van Sant's strange meditation on school mass shootings. Yet it is also full of groaning missteps and off-key decisions. Start with the title, so portentously vague as to mean almost anything, good discussion fodder for a high school classroom by implication. What do elephants have to do with a high school in suburban Portland, Oregon? An elephant never forgets. The elephant is the mascot symbol of the Republican Party, conspiring with manufacturers and their lobbying arm the NRA to irresponsibly flood the country with guns. The "elephant in the room" is the obvious thing no one wants to talk about (in this case, presumably, the relation between huge numbers of guns and high levels of gun violence). In the old parable, six blind men could not agree on what an elephant looks like. Elephants are presently the largest land mammals on the planet. An internet rumor claims that elephants consider humans "cute," because of the size difference, the way that humans consider dogs and cats and other smaller mammals cute. Two of these are actual reasons for the movie's title. Darrell, can you tell us which ones you think they are and why?

Elephant has an obvious source in the 1999 Columbine school shooting. The fact that the movie works from the assumption that Columbine was an extreme outlier event—like most of the rest of us thought in the early 2000s—does tend to date it already a little. But Van Sant is so meticulous about abstracting high school life to the symbolic nub of physical space and motion I think he manages to overcome that. Fifteen years later, nearly 20 years after Columbine, Elephant in its best moments has the cool terrifying look of unassailable reality. It's the realization of a nightmare carried in the head, the one going on several times each year. You feel like you are seeing exactly what it looks like to be caught in the situation. The strange urgent silence as people frantically run away. The panting and whimpering. The panicked adults. The empty hallways. The strange noises. The way death is dealt in a way at once clumsy and breathtakingly efficient, always impossibly sudden. But then, geez, I swear every 10 or 15 minutes, Van Sant indulges some ridiculous impulse that makes you want to jeer and hoot.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

"Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" (1967)

Carol Emshwiller's story is truly weird, an invasive sexualized peeping-tom or stalking situation with the usual gender roles reversed and some suggestion that one or both characters might actually be aliens from outer space, perhaps something like David Bowie's man who fell to earth. It is deeply and richly creepy. As described, Mr. Morrison's place is such a sty that the unnamed first-person narrator can conceal herself in the piles of dirty laundry. She is there for one reason—to see him naked, not so much for sexual reasons as curiosity. But inevitably it is sexually charged. She invades his home and sneaks about undetected. For his part, Mr. Morrison is a grossly obese middle-aged man living by himself. The narrator is attracted to him. She lives in the room below him. "He's too big to be a quiet man," she writes. "The house groans with him and settles when he steps out of bed." She doesn't mind hearing him, even enjoys it. But she wants to know who he is, "one of the Normals or one of the Others?" This is never really explained and could mean anything, from the aforementioned possibility of aliens to questions of sexuality or class. I also saw an internet synopsis that said the narrator is elderly—a clue I missed. At any rate, into the place she goes, making some close reconnoiters, as in the kneehole of a desk the man is sitting at. It's intense, but it's also hard to believe he would miss her. Is she that small? Is she not generating body heat? I think you see the problem. Maybe he would miss her under the bed or even in a pile of clothes, but really. Meanwhile, she is reveling sensuously in the experience, the smells, the sights, the textures. She's intoxicated with herself in this invasion, like a burglar prompted to a bowel movement in the act. We're inside certain nether regions of brain function here. Not to say the story isn't working, but it's just so powerfully repellent. It's like finding out someone is so attracted to a fetishized body part of yours they have masturbated near you. No harm no foul, maybe, but still. In this case, breaking and entering is involved. Now there is also some interesting play in this story with the gender reversals, subverting perhaps some predisposition to outrage because it is a woman. As with the Mary Kay Letourneau story, it's still often hard to entirely avoid a double standard, probably because cases like these are so rare. This story makes a woman the predator but her victim could control her simply by noticing her. Does that make the story comic, with or without the overlay of aliens? Or is it just an exposition of creepy—and illegal—behavior? The more I think about it the more I think it's another one that might actually qualify as dangerous.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

"The Snake" (1963)

[Original review of Johnny Rivers recording here. Version of "The Snake" by Oscar Brown Jr. here, version by Al Wilson here. My video of the Johnny Rivers version here. Version by Donald Trump here.]

[swear words] Out on the social media beat: I started my own YouTube channel (I know it's comical that I even have one) because, several years ago when I was much better about doing regular 300-word write-ups of individual songs, I would occasionally run across one that somehow wasn't on YouTube yet. So I'd make a video and upload it, giving me something to point to in my review and enabling people, at least in theory, to hear the song. All the song videos on my channel, such as they are all 17 of them, represent the rock-bottom production value type of video, made from a music file of the song with a decent bitrate and for visuals using a static image, usually the cover of an album that houses the song. This is also from back in the days when I kept music files by the gigabyte on my hard drive. Mostly these videos just sit there, accruing modest levels of views. Five digits is big traffic for them. Most are obscure one way or another, just things I love and have written about: Jonathan Richman's "That Summer Feeling," Percy Mayfield's "The River's Invitation," Boss Hog's "Ski Bunny," etc. Inevitably they attract the kind of comments every YouTube song video attracts. After newspaper sites, YouTube comments are well known for being the most rancid on a per capita basis. They also contain significant portions of vacuousness.

Once in a while someone files a complaint and then a video is banned in certain countries, or everywhere, usually for commercial reasons. It's not always permanent, and I can't always tell when it changes because the videos are always visible to me (thanks YouTube!). But some do appear to go live more widely on and off, judging by view count patterns. Just this month, someone complained about the Angry Samoans video for "They Saved Hitler's Cock." Honestly, I'm so chickenshit I didn't even use the expletive, labeling the video simply "They Saved Hitlers" to avoid problems (for which, just last month, someone else came along and mocked me ... for that matter, I ducked a similar way in my write-up). In this case, though possibly it was the usual copyright protectionism, I suspect the problem was not the word "cock" like I worried about originally but the word "Hitler." The song uses the name lightly, making him the usual symbol of bottomless evil but more playing it for a joke. I happen to think it's a pretty good joke, which is why I was writing it up in the first place. But in the current historical moment I have much less problem with putting it out of sight. If people are going to be idiots about it, I prefer seeing Hitler and his ideas shunned categorically and the more aggressively the better.

In terms of the Johnny Rivers song, that's a different matter, posing a quandary I have been wrestling with for some time. I posted the video on November 8, 2012 (I must say I'm a little chilled by the fact that it was two days after the 2012 US presidential election and exactly four years before the next). I wrote about it because I think Johnny Rivers is generally underrated and I wanted to say some things about that, because I like the song (and, more exactly, I like the album that it is the first song on), and because I felt nostalgic about the album. My judgment when I wrote it up was that the song plays way too loose with misogyny—it's dated—and the whole story of the snake is trite. My misogyny angle was confirmed in a way by the first comment that came in, not so long after posting it (by the way, I'm sure all or most of these comments are from people finding the video on YouTube or the internet and very few if any via my blog posts, at least I hope so): "all cunts are snakes!" (three years later someone replied "PIG!"). Now I'm going to talk about YouTube comments.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Bohemian Rhapsody is not just for fans of rock star icons Freddie Mercury and Queen, but it mainly is. I can speak with some authority as someone who isn't one. I'm sure some of the dazzling scenes here were lost on me, but others were rousing and a lot of fun, and I always appreciated the '70s rock star ambience. Admittedly, I may have been too hard on Queen in the past because I thought the only thing they ever did that mattered was the novelty "Bohemian Rhapsody" (not coincidentally the name of this picture). The song is a lengthy, intricate, and wonderful pop confection and it's exciting to see it worked out here across scenes of studio recording. I do wish they had just let the whole song rip at some point, the whole six minutes in all its glory, but apparently there was no time for that in a movie that runs over two hours. A good part of the "Bohemian Rhapsody" excerpt we see was also decorated with a score-settling barrage of bad notices from critics in the '70s. Well, fair enough. Like many a star in the hardcore pop firmament—Mariah Carey, Billy Joel, Chicago, Olivia Newton-John, and Celine Dion are names that come to mind—Queen has long been something of a mystery to me outside of the top 40 (and often within it) and I have more often been on the side of the harsher judgments. But you can't deny the love of the people, not least because it's a recurring feature in this movie, CGI-enhanced or otherwise. Queen fans might make this movie a hit yet via sheer willpower. A certain strong suit is the biography of Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara of Parsi descent in Zanzibar and raised in England, an interesting and complex story that was all new to me. Also recommending Bohemian Rhapsody is the performance of Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as Mercury, bug-eyed and full of sparkling wonder with a looming overbite and sheer electric confidence. I liked Freddie Mercury during this movie more than I ever have, perhaps because it's the first time he's ever felt genuine, perhaps because it was still very hard during his lifetime to live openly as gay. But Malek might be effectively as charismatic as Mercury here. He certainly won me over. I also have to say I enjoyed the movie's versions of what I had previously written off as sports anthems ("We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions")—pretty good stuff, yeah. On the downside, the movie starts slow, loses its way in the middle, makes up shit for dishonest dramatic purposes, and is generally about 40 minutes too long, until finally reaching a heroic finish with a reenactment of the band's 20-minute set at Live Aid in 1985. That finish, and maybe an hour or so of Mercury's story, are good for anyone who cares about '70s rock. The rest is for Queen fans.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

"Second Variety" (1953)

This early long story by Philip K. Dick works equally well whether you take it as a '50s-style killer robot rampage or as a prescient treatment of artificial intelligence (which term would not come into use as we understand it now until two years later, in 1955, with The Logic Theorist computer program). Dick invented a fiendish device here called a claw, a silver sphere with retractable whirling razor blades reminiscent of the weapon / monster / dream object in the movie Phantasm. "Second Variety" is set in a post-apocalyptic world, and these claws were developed as a defense weapon, largely against encroaching small mammals. Claws are not only highly intelligent in their hunting protocols, but they are also programed to manufacture and improve themselves. How that is accomplished is another question but one Dick distracts us from with a swiftly moving action story. Like the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica first seen as menacing "toaster" killing machines and then later returned with hyper advancements, so these lowly rat-chomping claws became something far beyond what anyone had ever imagined. Dick manages the story with a lot of skill and a sharp series of reveals that often surprise. If nothing else, "Second Variety" confirms Dick's abilities as a storyteller, sustained long enough that some refer to it as a novella, whatever. Forty years later it was turned into a movie, 1995's Screamers, that made a few changes to the story but was reasonably faithful. I read the story first—it's a better experience, as is often the case—and I'm not sure how much sense the movie would make without knowing the story. I think it might be very little. Screamers has its bona fides. Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon also worked on Dark Star, Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, and Total Recall. Total Recall is as close as I've seen to anyone getting Dick right, so there's that too. And they're doing the best they can with obvious limitations on casting and special effects. It's more an exercise in atmospheric mood and brawny swaggering. It also includes some scenes distinctly reminiscent of Blade Runner, and I happen to know for a fact they don't come from the story, so that's weird. But the story is really great and also genuinely Dickian in the way he simply imagines artificial intelligence and exactly what can possibly go wrong just the way we imagine it now. Say, which reminds me, what is the present status and/or policy on military technology and artificial intelligence? You say it's classified? Well, damn.

The Philip K. Dick Reader

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Scene at the Sea (1991)

Ano natsu, ichiban shizukana umi, Japan, 101 minutes
Director / writer / editor: Takeshi Kitano
Photography: Katsumi Yanagijima
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Cast: Claude Maki, Hiroko Oshima, Sabu Kawahara

For a movie that is so self-consciously about silence, A Scene at the Sea has a notably beautiful soundtrack. Director, writer, and editor Takeshi "Beat" Kitano makes the music an integral part of it. Composer Joe Hisaishi had already established himself with animated films from Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Ponyo, and many others). With A Scene at the Sea he began a fruitful collaboration with Kitano as well (including soundtracks for Sonatine, Fireworks, and Kikujiro). It is moody keyboard synthesizer music in A Scene at the Sea, occasionally reminiscent of the Pet Shop Boys, overflowing with emotional tug points but at the same time cool and distant, like the sea vistas themselves that populate this movie so constantly. As much as anything A Scene at the Sea is a movie about watching. We spend a lot of time watching people who are watching other things, as often as not the sea itself.

Formally, it's because the two main characters—Shigeru (Claude Maki) and Takako (Hiroko Oshima)—are deaf, a boyfriend and girlfriend in their 20s who are living in a world with only visual and tactile cues. The music works as a kind of analog of their feelings. Shigeru is a garbage collector who decides one day that he wants to be a surfer. That's the narrative arc and chief point of clarity. Much of the rest of it, including what happens to them in the end, is shrouded or at least obscured by silence. No one has much to say, in other words. Kitano, who can be prone anyway to cinematic stunts inserted like fits of expressive joy, emphasizes the situation by borrowing heavily from the aesthetics of silent film. Title cards could cover all the dialogue in this movie. The way A Scene at the Sea stops and starts and moves sideways and returns again to its through-lines is like nothing so much as Sunrise or Man With a Movie Camera, luxuriating in the simplest pulses of a love story, and even more, in the pure visual.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Terrorists (1975)

So happy endings all around? In a general sort of way, yes. The democratic social welfare system remains as riddled with defect as ever, and as Dennis Lehane points out in his introduction for the 2010 reprint, the last word in the book and thus the whole Story of Crime series is "Marx." Authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö would likely consider themselves optimists in that regard, and so do I. But getting there is still not a pretty picture. Even so, police detective Martin Beck and his crew at least manage to get to some hard-won happy places in their lives. And bully for them. In the larger series I'm more interested anyway in the context of liberal paradise Stockholm, even more than the specific crime cases, which are artfully constructed but also tend toward the pro forma. Published in 1975, inevitably the point of view of The Terrorists is historically bound. People with the sense that terrorism started in 2001 might be interested to learn about some of the prequels alluded to here. A mastermind terrorist cell network—the Red Army Faction of the time is the likely model, but even more deadly and effective—is determined to strike at a conservative U.S. senator on a scheduled visit to Stockholm. It's up to Beck to stop the mayhem, or, well, actually his various superiors, who variously take the credit for themselves. And stop it they do. Though Per Wahlöö died of cancer the year this was published, at the age of 48 (coauthor Maj Sjöwall is still alive today), The Terrorists was always intended as the final volume in a series conceived much earlier. The novels are more episodic than working within a larger narrative arc, but they veer about carefully from touchstone to touchstone, from serial killers to police violence to a locked-room mystery to international spy intrigue and more. The larger theme is the nagging question of barbarism and civilization and the social welfare state. What's it going to be? If we give up barbarism we opt for the suffocations of cooperating with one another on a scale of numbers we can't even comprehend—presently approaching 8 billion people. You could say it's pretty well a bleak vision too. Just look around you. And Martin Beck would have to agree. Take it as a mercy for him that he ended up in a happy relationship.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Cop Killer (1974)

Near the end now of Maj Sjöwall's and Per Wahlöö's Story of Crime series, and main characters are making various life decisions. The police detective Martin Beck has risen high in the ranks, and even become a bit of a celebrated public figure. At first I took the title as another nod to Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series (which started with Cop Hater and had a small run with "Killer" in the title). But it's actually more of an involuted double entendre. Some cop killing does go on here—technically not really, but the details are there to be discovered—which produces a ludicrous but easily imagined overreaction on the part of the national Swedish police force. Indeed, the brooding ruminations on police power across the series reach a certain crescendo in this one. The title is also a way to describe a policeman who has killed, along the way distinguishing it as well from policemen prone to such actions, which would be more like "Killer Cop." The cop killer in this case is Beck's friend Lennart Kollberg. In spite of recent police rules mandating it, Kollberg has long refused to carry a firearm except in the most extreme circumstances. He was involved in an accidental killing early in his career which he deeply regrets. The main case at hand in Cop Killer, however, is the disappearance of a woman living next door to a known sex criminal. In fact, he's known to us too—from Roseanne, the first novel in the series. It's part of tying the whole series together, but feels a little strained as a plot element. On the other hand, the situation with the sex criminal actually has some interesting wrinkles. We see the crime in the carefully written first chapter, and see enough to know it could be but isn't necessarily him. Beck and Kollberg come to believe he is innocent and the case is interesting and fair. However, the B story, which is the confrontation that produces a dead cop, becomes the more interesting story (even though it comes in so late) because that's where police force militarism is examined most closely and lampooned without mercy. Part of the interest here, and much of my own in police procedurals, is the inherent tension of police power—its ability to routinize and stabilize daily life and its enormous potential for abuse. Those are the themes Sjöwall and Wahlöö are best on in this one.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Locked Room (1972)

I was impressed with this entry in the Martin Beck series—I'm tempted to call it the best. The locked-room mystery—in which victims are found dead of violence in rooms locked from the inside and no weapon or signs of exit or entrance are in evidence—is of course one of the oldest and most enduring of mystery story types. There is only so much you can do with them, and authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were rarely innovative in the whodunit realm anyway. So the explanation here is somewhat busy but fair enough. Ed McBain liked locked-room mysteries and used them often, which might make it another wry homage. What I like better about The Locked Room is how they blend the genre requirements with their social preoccupations and put it together into a nearly perfectly waterproof vessel. This is much longer than any previous novel in the series, and indeed the longest of all. There is another case the police detectives are working on as well, a series of brazen bank robberies. For his part, police detective Beck has been assigned the locked-room case to work through by himself. The ironies and paradoxes of a blended capitalist / socialist system still evolving are explored in rich detail, as usual. Social programs may be a net positive, but they have unintended and sometimes grotesque results. Meanwhile, harshly authoritarian conservatives cling to power with all their might. (They have less might in these Beck novels than they have now, and I must say some of these scenarios make me nostalgic for past times.) Beck is recovering from an injury suffered in the previous action-packed novel. We see via Beck's investigation how one woman's life has gone since being abandoned by her husband. It is an acutely painful study of the lack of support and perceived value for single mothers then. It's still bad now, but it was worse then, and the trap she falls into—once her husband has stopped providing child support—is all too plausible. The Locked Room takes an extraordinary number of complex threads and weaves them into a remarkable picture. It's not often you get to see one tied up so neatly. Start here if you're only going to read one of these Martin Beck novels.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Abominable Man (1971)

In this case, policemen are being systematically killed. The first is a high-ranking official, Chief Inspector Nyman, with roots back to the military. His methods and conduct toward criminals were harsh. Mistakes by the police under him were covered up as a matter of unofficial policy. Nyman's brutal methods are described as "old school" and his own murder is equally brutal—a case of overkill. Police detective Martin Beck broods about the underlying social problems. He and most of the other detectives quickly settle on vengeance as the motive, which of course proves out. Even in this series the police are routinely credited with good instincts. Police procedures are then followed to uncover suspects. Some interesting character developments occur involving Lennart Kollberg, the closest Beck has to a friend on the police, and Gunvald Larsson, a blustering and violent man who nonetheless is possessed of the aforementioned good police instincts. Both Beck and Kollberg generally do not carry guns on principle and also for practical considerations, but Larsson scoffs at them as pacifists. As much as anything in the series so far, The Abominable Man is an action-packed thriller, with lots of shooting and clambering around dangerous places. There's even a helicopter crash. It was made into a popular Swedish movie in 1976 called The Man on the Roof. So that's all entertaining enough, but the more enduring appeal as usual is the portrait of a society in change. The police strategies of covering up mistakes and blundering about with powerful munitions are seen as having come home to roost. At the same time, many in the novel—and no doubt some of the readers as well—still believe the strength of the police is in its superior firepower. In many ways this is the freshest story in the series yet for our times, reflecting issues we have been addressing (or attempting to address) in recent years around police misconduct and the gray area between it and military methods (not to mention organized crime methods of summary execution). In The Abominable Man there is no clear right and wrong, in many instances, and when there is the right choice often seems all but impossible. As usual, the novel is pretty fair to all sides.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Murder at the Savoy (1970)

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö conceived the Martin Beck series of police procedurals as a single 10-part piece called The Story of Crime. The individual novels are short but that still adds up to over 2,000 pages—ambitious. The Story of Crime is not so much about the crime plots or the characters we come to know, but more an analysis or even critique of a system of justice in what was then (and remains) Sweden's fragile democratic welfare state. Here at the halfway point of the series we know many of the characters pretty well, especially the police detective Beck, who has left his wife with this one. But the personal stories remain decidedly to the side in this series. The primary focus is always on the case at hand, which happens to be emblematic of various social ills, at the rate of approximately one per book. This time it's the murder or assassination of a wealthy and dynamic businessman, and the issue, in today's parlance, is income inequality. The series was reissued about 10 years ago with all-new introductions by various writers. This one is by a Swedish crime novelist of the next generation, Arne Dahl (aka Jan Arnold, born 1963), and I was particularly interested in his take. He feels Murder at the Savoy is a little too leftist and classifies the crime as a "1968" type. It's true that all the rich people here are portrayed as shallow reprobates, you might even say Donald Trump types, scamming everyone in sight and oblivious to everything else. In fact, that's baked into the resolution of the crime itself. Dahl wrote his introduction in 2009, before income inequality became topical again with the coming of the Occupy movement, which had worldwide impacts in terms of understanding the issue. I wonder if he feels differently now. Murder at the Savoy did not seem at all unreasonable to me. Certainly the way things go for poor people here fits into everything I've ever heard or seen for myself. People get trapped economically in all kinds of ways: unemployment due to factory closures, rents uncontrollable and destabilizing, real estate out of reach, alcoholism, domestic violence, despair. The only lever they have is the state, however unwieldy and incompetent. At the same time, and best of all (or most satisfying), Murder at the Savoy is also a great procedural, showing how a case is "solved" with systematic approaches doggedly applied. There's also a nice detail here that one of the suspects is reading an Ed McBain novel (and a specific one—'Til Death). Sjöwall and Wahlöö don't often indulge such impulses, except for McBain here and there. Instead, they were trying to work out a really big picture about society and right and wrong.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 09, 2018

L'Eclisse (1962)

The Eclipse, Italy / France, 126 minutes
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Ello Bartolini, Ottiero Ottieri
Photography: Gianni Di Venanzo
Music: Giovanni Fusco, Mina
Editor: Eraldo Da Roma
Cast: Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, Francisco Rabal, Lilla Brignone, Rosanna Rory, Louis Seigner

L'Eclisse is the third movie in an informal trilogy by director and cowriter Michelangelo Antonioni, following L'Avventura and La Notte. They are aimless, vaguely existential, and decidedly modern art films from the early '60s, the heroic era of the art film. The first, L'Avventura from 1960, is more often singled out as the most impactful. Someone once said you can see its influence on David Lean, for example, in the difference between The Bridge Over the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. L'Eclisse is generally ranked not far behind. Perhaps because I've seen so many movies influenced by Antonioni, none of the actual Antonionis has ever lived up for me to their reputations. The people are too beautiful and rich for me, as a general rule, and the psychic dead spaces between them no more illuminating than the psychic dead spaces between a million others encountered on a daily basis.

But what is L'Eclisse? Let's go to the IMDb synopsis, which basically covers everything we need to know: "In the suburbs of Rome, the translator Vittoria [Monica Vitti] breaks her engagement with her boyfriend, the writer Riccardo, after a troubled night. Vittoria goes downtown to meet her mother, who is addicted to the stock market, and she meets the broker Piero [Alain Delon] on a day of crash. The materialist Piero and the absent Vittoria begin a monosyllabic relationship" (synopsis by Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Keywords: italy, insomnia, sports car, reference to zeus, obsession, marriage, isolation, male female relationship, father daughter relationship, depression, boyfriend girlfriend relationship, boredom, mother daughter relationship, construction site, stock broker, alienation, loneliness

Thursday, November 08, 2018

"The Doll-House" (1967)

James Cross was a pseudonym of Hugh J. Parry (not to be confused with Hugh G. Rexion), a sociology professor who was at pains to keep his two professional lives separate. Sadly, it's hard to say now which is more obscure than the other. Neither has a Wikipedia entry—in fact, this story seems to be the only reference to him there. In his introduction to the story, editor Harlan Ellison relates that he solicited his own literary agent in the hunt for material, which yielded up this story and another. As a side note, I like how many of the writers in this collection are offbeat or unknown and not just the "usual suspects" of '60s SF. Ellison as usual sings highest praise of the story, and it's not bad. It feels like a lift from The Twilight Zone but there is little conceptual overlay to parse, always a relief. A man, Jim Eliot, is in financial straits, and he turns to a haughty and pretentious relative for help (a retired Ivy League humanities professor), who gives him a half-mocking gift: a dollhouse that is home to a Roman sibyl. Yes, that's right, an actual tiny divine creature who can predict the future if you treat her right. That's important. Even if you treat her right, her answers are cryptic. For example, asked for the winner of the World Series (the setting is 1964), she responds, "Fringillidae sunt." Eventually a Latinist and then a zoologist lead Eliot to the St. Louis Cardinals. Well, you can probably imagine how this goes, as our hero grows increasingly imperiled financially and increasingly impatient with his personal soothsayer. In his afterword, Parry emphasizes the "dangerous" aspect of his story—I appreciated that because the further I go with this collection the more I find myself worrying the concept. I often sense it in Ellison as well. In a way I like how elusive it is, but like the desperate character in this story I also want answers—ones I can understand. Parry's view of the dangerous vision in his story, if I understand him, is about challenging entrenched class structures. Eliot, who is a banker, has nonetheless married over his head, sealing his doom. Even the sibyl probably looks down on him. Actually, being divine, she probably looked down on the humanities professor too. I'm starting to think, more and more, that a lot of the dangerous visions in the best of these stories are as old as the struggle for class position: ancient and unceasing.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Change of Heart (2008)

I'm not sure how this ended up in my house, let alone why I felt such an obligation to read it. Later, looking up the conventional wisdom on Jodi Picoult, I learned the hefty novel is a bit of an also-ran in her ginormous catalog of over two dozen titles, often top 10 in rankings and polls but rarely top 5. In its details the story is as clanking as its title (someone here is going to need a heart transplant, you see, and others will need to reevaluate their opinions), but what bothered me more was the glib religiosity, for which I wasn't prepared. It sounds like Change of Heart is typical for Picoult in its topicality. I mean, check this out: A handyman, Shay Bourne, is convicted of the murders of the daughter and father in a household where he worked, and there is evidence the girl had been sexually assaulted. Bourne gets the death penalty, the first in New Hampshire in decades. While on death row, he learns that the younger sister of the murdered girl needs a healthy heart. Bourne wants to donate his, but there are complications because of the lethal injection he will get, which makes it impossible for him to be a donor. On top of all this, Bourne starts performing miracles. That's approximately where I got off the bus, and these miracles start early. Picoult is a skillful novelist—her book feels researched and believable in many important ways, and she juggles nicely the first-person reports of a few different characters. We only see Bourne from the outside but like many of these characters he's hard to believe as anything more than a device. At the same time, I have to give it up to Picoult for the book's other obvious function, which is the book reading group market. They are playing to it directly in my paperback edition, with a WSP Readers Club brand and, in the back, a Readers Club Guide, with suggested topics of discussion. And there is so much to discuss here, for people of goodwill: the death penalty, prison conditions, the justice system, organ donors and transplants, violence, death, loss, and of course that's good old Jesus coming along for the ride too, kinda sorta (still doesn't have any smokes). Change of Heart practically brings its own impetus for social interaction with it. And, yes, it might be fun to hang out with friends and loved ones and kick around some of the ideas, like dipping into Gregory Stock's Book of Questions on summer vacation or during Christmas week. The story in Change of Heart moves in swift, simple, and broad strokes to illustrate all its busy bullet points. You really should belong to a reading group to finish the experience. I'll give Picoult the benefit of the doubt that the simplifications are deliberate—to make it seem like a parable. But as a general rule for regular reading I don't like parables that much either.

In case it's not at the library.