Monday, January 29, 2018

Faces Places (2017)

This documentary is a collaboration between Agnes Varda and JR, who travel the French countryside in a van that looks like a camera, taking pictures of people and plastering the results giant size on the sides of buildings. Both have established careers as photographers, though Varda's name is likely more associated with filmmaking because she was a key figure in the French New Wave of the late '50s and early '60s with such films as Cleo From 5 to 7. Lately she is better known for documentaries such as The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnes. They are personal, quirky, and charming, and so is Faces Places, which might be my favorite of the three. It's a real collaboration too, as the van, the plastering aesthetic, and a lot of the ideas are JR's. We see them working out some of them here. With over 50 years' difference in their ages, the first surprise in a picture full of them is the kind of working chemistry they establish and maintain. Their sensibilities are well matched. JR's work shades over into realms of graffiti and even vandalism—he's a bit of a French Banksy. He takes the streets as the ultimate art gallery and he likes to work big. His van not only looks like a camera but has a photo booth in the back that churns out prints bigger than life. Cool Aunt Agnes Varda has an appreciation for JR's outlaw instinct but her own is more toward humanity and the pure pleasures of art, which rarely fail this movie. She just wishes JR would take off his shades once in a while. Faces Places is warm, generous, tender, insightful, and often very funny. They go to villages and make portraits of miners, farmers, goats, baristas, the wives of dockworkers, a postman, and more. They find an abandoned village, throw a picnic party, and cover the decaying buildings with faces. They have a sad encounter with Varda's long-time friend and colleague, Jean-Luc Godard. In one sequence they look for a place for an old photograph of Varda's and finally find it on a bunker that has fallen from a cliff onto a beach. The result is beautiful but the next day the elements of wind and tide have completely erased it. But that never stops them, or even discourages them much, and that commitment to the work, doing it and moving on to the next thing, may be the most moving element here. Although it could be the palpable connection they share. Or any of a number of brilliant images and many of the people they meet. It's hard to say because there are so many good things about this movie.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831)

I was surprised by how short this is—less than 20 pages, after all the attestations, certifications, and such. But then I realized I had it confused with the 1967 novel by William Styron, which I don't know. The incidents related here are certainly ripe for novelization (and a reportedly abysmal movie too just a year or two ago): 55 white men, women, and children slaughtered. Turner's dead-eyed confession is a compressed list of activities that took place on August 21 and 22, 1831. There's a sense Turner feels justified by a higher power, which he discusses as well. But much of it goes like this: "Having murdered Mrs. Waller and ten children, we started for Mr. William Williams' —having killed him and two little boys that were there; while engaged in this, Mrs. Williams fled and got some distance from the house, but she was pursued, overtaken, and compelled to get up behind one of the company, who brought her back, and after showing her the mangled body of her lifeless husband, she was told to get down and lay by his side, where she was shot dead." It's no exaggeration to call it a brutal massacre. It holds the record for numbers of victims in a slave rebellion. Interestingly, there weren't that many slave rebellions in 19th-century North America, as the Southern system was highly effective at controlling them. The savagery of this massacre, the rage it speaks to behind it, says at least as much about that system as any presumption of natural animal savagery among the slaves, which of course was the explanation given at the time. Most Roy Moore voters today doubtless still agree with that, but try to imagine how you would feel, enslaved. Inevitably, there are also questions about the motives of the lawyer who recorded Turner's confessions, a local attorney and white man named Thomas R. Gray. This text has to be taken as only a narrow window into the mind of the rebels. Gray includes Turner's spiritual beliefs as expressed, for example, but it's certainly possible he just made them and all of it up. It doesn't finally matter that much. We learn a great deal about the details of the massacre itself. It's the rage behind the incidents that's most palpable, whoever is relating the details. It took place in Southampton County, Virginia, which among other things suggests that the options for running away were limited. The slaves were very far from any place they could consider safe. The massacre appears more to be an act of righteous retribution—kill as many white people as they could before they were run to ground. And that sounds like about the way it went down. The results were as to be expected: 56 slaves executed for the deaths of 55 white people, and hundreds more lynched or violently abused. Slavery to continue for decades.

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

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Truth (1968)

Some years ago, after I wrote about the first Led Zeppelin album, someone dropped by and left the following comment: "Gotta admit, I loved this album the first time I heard it - when it was called Truth, by the Jeff Beck Group." This was intriguing. I knew Beck and Jimmy Page both spent time in the Yardbirds but I hadn't realized there were such invidious distinctions to be made between them, with Beck as the genuine article (and/or first to it) and Page the talentless commercial copycat, or so I read the implication. Of course, most of Zepp's various plagiarism lawsuits speak for themselves. But it's not as if Beck and company are so much above that particular fray, with two songs here credited to Willie Dixon (same as Led Zeppelin) and three to "Jeffrey Rod" (that's Beck and Stewart, respectively), with "reworkings of previous blues songs" (it says in Wikipedia). I mostly missed Jeff Beck's early albums in their day and didn't really catch up with him until the mid-'70s and Blow by Blow and Wired, which are closer to jazz fusion. I liked them very much. It's interesting to circle back finally. Plainly I missed a lot. Truth is not only Beck's first solo album, but also a big break for Ron Wood and Rod Stewart (or Sir Roderick David Stewart, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, as he is known now). I've never known what to make of Rod Stewart. In general, his voice is so singular it calls too much attention to itself for me. It can be effective at evoking a certain melancholy with remarkable resonance, e.g., most famously, "Maggie May," but a little of that can go a long way (and radio gave us a lot of it).

Within parameters, he always sounds the same. On Truth he sounds like Rod Stewart, with all his future history which we now know, in front of a blues jam, which works as well as anything, kind of, although the most melancholy track here is an instrumental, the traditional "Greensleeves." If that commenter intended a one-on-one comparison it does raise interesting questions. Who is the better singer, Robert Plant or Rod Stewart? Who is the better songwriter / band leader / guitar player, Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page? Of course, these things are easily muddied. That's Jimmy Page himself, and John Paul Jones for that matter, on one of the best tracks here, "Beck's Bolero." Jones is on other tracks too, and not just playing bass. Yet, whatever the reason, I can't concede Truth as the superior album to Led Zeppelin—Led Zeppelin's whole mood is not only more coherent, but operating on higher levels generally (keywords: dazed and confused). Truth is a bit tentative and patched together, uncertain of its direction and confecting a few different ones: the production polish of instrumental novelties like "Beck's Bolero" and "Greensleeves" (which come to think of it look forward to Blow by Blow), the spaces for Rod Stewart to ham it up and preen (notably the show tune "Ol' Man River," which unfortunately never fails to remind me of a Stan Freberg sketch) (note that no show tune appears on Led Zeppelin), and finally, my favorite, the longer bluesy rock band workouts. They are the longest tracks here, "Blues Deluxe" (by Jeffrey Rod) and "I Ain't Superstitious" (by Willie Dixon). My answer to my first question above, by the way, is Robert Plant, flaws and all. I just always hear too much of the ridiculous in Sir Rodney and really like only one or two early albums and some of the disco singles. The second question is not as easy, but I lean toward Beck. Certainly he is more lyrical and wide-ranging than Page as a guitar player, and perfectly capable of matching the power. From "Greensleeves" to "Blues Deluxe," Truth is a hodgepodge. But an interesting one with some great moments.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Love and Death (1975)

USA, 85 minutes
Director/writer: Woody Allen
Photography: Ghislain Cloquet
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Editor: Marilyn McLaren
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, James Tolkan, Harold Gould, Georges Adet, Despo Diamantidou, Frank Adu, Olga Georges-Picot, Jessica Harper, Lloyd Battista

Woody Allen's lampoon of Russian literature remains one of his funniest movies, arguably the best of the early comedies, and the last of them. But it was also an early sign that we might have a pretension problem on our hands. In Love and Death, people often erupt in philosophy jargon babble—"but judgment of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as being or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself"—which, even as it makes fun of such affectation, also serves to let us know Woody Allen has read philosophy. He's no nebbish. He's a real intellectual. (He also gets to have it both ways, as this particular speech is punctured by Allen's laugh line response: "Yeah, I've said that many times.")

The Russian setting of Love and Death is plainly Tolstoyan, taking place during the Napoleonic era. The scheme by Boris Grushenko (Allen) and his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton) to assassinate Napoleon (James Tolkan) wallows in obvious Dostoevskian angst. And Sonja's life is Chekhovian. (I'm sure there are nods to Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, and others as well.) But the structure of the movie is more like a 19th-century American novel, Moby-Dick. That's the way of classic Woody Allen comedies, indeed of a certain style of movie comedy still used all the time today, from the Zucker brothers' Airplane! to Judd Apatow and beyond, and dating back to the Marx Brothers: set a quick pace and use everything you can think of that might work, visually, verbally, and every which way, and never stop doing that. But Love and Death has even one more secret weapon.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

"A Country Love Story" (1950)

Story by Jean Stafford not available online.

Jean Stafford's story bears the familiar theme in postwar US of the tragedy of divorce. I use the word "tragedy" a little mockingly because it's so much more common and expected now. But it wasn't then, and if the implied alarms about societal breakdowns now seem overdone, the sadness and bewilderment of divorce is often effectively captured here. But there's also a sense that Stafford is leaning conveniently into the perception of tragedy, at least a little. At least in the biting title. The countryside is where this marriage goes to die, hand in hand with husband Daniel's illness, which first puts him in a sanitarium for a year and then, on doctor's orders (for the good air), to the place in the country he buys with his wife May, an old farmhouse in New England. It sounds like Daniel has tuberculosis, which I admit puts me in mind of The Magic Mountain, though that's probably me. Anyway, setting aside the amazing privilege so taken for granted in their lives, it seems like a good relationship, or has been for five years. It's now being tested by the intrusion of this disease and/or aging into another phase. At first things go well, "like a second honeymoon, for they had moved to a part of the North where they had never been and explored it together." As the first summer ends, however, Daniel turns to a writing project, and soon May feels isolated and abandoned. The relationship breaks down—we know enough to guess a few credible theories for why, but the story is not about explaining it, only charting it. They bicker. They can't make decisions. They talk less and less. The point of view is May's, and she is in pain but apparently helpless to do anything to make it better. This is very familiar to us, nearly 70 years on (a lifetime), though as I say it may have been more of a novelty then. The original source, which is common to so many of the stories in this collection, is the New Yorker. I know Stafford's name but haven't read much of her. This story is nicely put together—the characters are interesting, the language a pleasure. But it seems more of a type (early midcentury divorce American style), at least at this distance. There could well be many more good stories by her.

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

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)

The social scientist and economist Thorstein Veblen was born in Wisconsin and educated at Yale. His most enduring and famous contribution is probably the term "conspicuous consumption," which is explained at great length in this short book. His language is dense with minute logical connections and repetitive social science jargon of the time. Some of his favorite words include "invidious," "emulation," "reputability," and "honorific." I'm not sure I can exactly recommend The Theory of the Leisure Class, because it's kind of a slog, but I will say Veblen is capable of undercutting the stuffy tone with a lacerating wit. In his social science way he is a student of the Oscar Wilde school of paradoxical statement. "The ancient tradition of the predatory culture is that productive effort is to be shunned as being unworthy of able-bodied men.... The walking-stick serves the purpose of an advertisement that the bearer's hands are employed otherwise than in useful effort, and it therefore has utility as an evidence of leisure.... The possession and maintenance of slaves employed in the production of goods argues wealth and prowess, but the maintenance of servants who produce nothing argues still higher wealth and position." The latter nugget, for example, is a de facto explication of field slaves and house slaves. The book is rich with observations such as these. One of my favorites is an anecdote about a king whose servant inadvertently places him too close to the fire before hurrying off on other duties. His Majesty must suffer the pains of burnt feet because it would be undignified for him to get up and move the chair himself. I first read this book in the early '80s. Coming back to it throws things into relief. Now that we are deep into the decadent phase of this second Gilded Age, which was only starting then, it's more obvious how much these issues of economic inequalities were driving Veblen's thought—and his contempt. The interesting thing to me about his greatest hit, "conspicuous consumption," is that I suspect it needs no explanation whatsoever to anyone in the US who hears it. Everyone knows it intuitively and has their examples. Mine is the Rolex watch—or perhaps diamonds. At any rate, this book is more exactly about two types of conspicuous consumption: conspicuous waste and conspicuous leisure. But it all amounts to the same thing. The wealthy are entitled to use a lot of resources doing silly and/or reckless things, because they can—and you can't. It explains a lot about the way we live, and incidentally takes the caustic bitterness around the bend into a few dark night laughs. And the ethnic Norwegian name notwithstanding, it's as American as Wisconsin apple pie.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Matinee (1993)

USA, 99 minutes
Director: Joe Dante
Writers: Jerico, Charles S. Haas
Photography: John Hora
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Editor: Marshall Harvey
Cast: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Mark McCracken, William Schallert, Simon Fenton, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Omri Katz, James Villemarie, Dick Miller, John Sayles, Robert Picardo, Naomi Watts, Kevin McCarthy, Jesse White

Director Joe Dante's affectionate treatment of midcentury science fiction monster movies and the industry that spawned them is a mixed bag. It probably has too much nostalgia by rote and certainly way too much inadvertent '90s period detail, such as the boys' variously feathered haircuts. Officially the time setting is 1962. In fact, it's even more precise than that: October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But some fine Cadillacs in restoration do little to overcome those haircuts, let alone the ways of interacting. But never mind. John Goodman takes the reins as Lawrence Woolsey, a swaggering producer of shock cinema in the mold of William Castle, though he's also something of an Alfred Hitchcock wannabe. In Matinee, Woolsey is opening a new picture in a small Florida coastal town.

Castle, of course, was the man responsible in the late '50s and early '60s for gimmicky horror movies such as House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and 13 Ghosts. They were released with arcane come-ons such as "Emergo," "Percepto," and "Illusion-O," which amounted to rigging the actual theaters where they played with things like joy buzzers under seats, or pulleys and ropes overhead for floating skeletons at strategic points. Castle concocted brilliant and hilarious gimmicks like distributing $1,000 life insurance policies to attendees, in case they died of fright. He also produced (and even made a cameo appearance in) Rosemary's Baby. In many ways, you're likely in for more entertainment with a good biography of Castle than this movie, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth checking out.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

"Lawns" (1984)

Read story by Mona Simpson online.

Mona Simpson's story turns out to be about a searing topical social issue at least as much as fictional technique, perhaps because the subject matter—incest—is so alarmingly vivid ("prejudicial," they would say in a courtroom). I can't tell from a quick perusal of Simpson's Wikipedia biography how much this might be rooted in real-life events. Not much, I suspect, though it was interesting to find out she and Steve Jobs were full siblings, unknown to anyone until both were full-grown. The first half of "Lawns," in fact, before the reveals start coming big time, is much more like a Carver episode. Jenny, the first-person narrator, is a high-strung chattering college girl, who seems a little neurotic but reasonably normal, even as she opens the story with various tell-tale symptoms. She's a kleptomaniac, working in the student post office part-time, stealing letters, cash, and cookies. It's bad enough that university officials have opened an investigation. Jenny knows she probably won't get caught if she stops now and never admits it to anyone. She is also a high achiever, attending Berkeley and making high marks. Gradually, her strange relationship with her father starts to clarify. It's masked by the chaotic times in her life, leaving home for the first time for college, by her mother's strange character, and more than anything by Jenny's continual minimizing and denying. As the details come out in the second half it's heartbreaking and sickening at once. It looks like an epiphany story but doesn't exactly behave like one, which creates a powerful tension. The plot hinges on her steps to detach permanently from her father, by going public and telling everyone. She loses a boyfriend, though her roommate steps up in significant ways. Her relationship with her mother undergoes the biggest change, in seemingly positive directions. Among other things, the news instantly ends that marriage. But Jenny is only starting to grasp the realities. There's so much we can see that she can't, and most of it hurts. We wouldn't be inclined to attempt to clue her in even if she existed in real life and were a friend. She still has so far to go. So this story is actually very powerful and well done. Yet the Lifetime movie flavor of it—or perhaps just the issue of incest itself—also works to undermine it a little. On one level it feels absurdly easy to reach for it to pump up the drama. On another level the story feels perfectly true to that issue and to reality both. Yet the extremity feels just a little reached for as a matter of effect. Dorothy Allison's "River of Dreams," from earlier in this volume, makes an interesting companion piece perhaps.

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

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Florida Project (2017)

Following my usual procedures—call it laziness if you must—I went into The Florida Project blind. I had seen director and cowriter Sean Baker's Tangerine but didn't make the association until I looked it up later. The Florida Project is similarly colorful, though less of that is in-camera (in-phone, to be precise) and more of it is by way of the painted landscape of a motel and strip mall district in central Florida's Orlando. It's a thoroughly professional production this time, more or less. The seamy Orlando neighborhood abuts and serves the tourist trade at Disney World—preys on it actually, more like, because there's a lot of poverty and desperation at the shitty little purple motel that provides the place setting. Also like Tangerine you spend a lot of the movie wondering where it's headed, because it doesn't seem to be headed anywhere. But Baker coaches a memorable performance out of the 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, the overly sugared-up daughter of Halley (Bria Vinaite), a part-time prostitute and full-time hustler, who is probably not even 25 yet. Yes, it's America's famous shithole underside, in the stinking flesh—American poverty porn (American Honey had some of it too, and Spring Breakers and Harmony Korine more generally reek of it). Halley is foul-mouthed and self-destructive—at strategic points she reminded me uncannily of Courtney Love. Willem Dafoe, the only recognizable star here, has a role as the motel manager and brings a kind of useful stillness and gravity to the picture. But Moonee and the kids she hangs out with and serves as a bad influence on—Scootie, Jancy, some anonymous others—are the main characters here. They hang out and make a lot of trouble, with limited adult supervision. They vandalize, shoplift, and commit other petty crimes—one, at least, an incidental plot point, is much more than petty. They screech a lot. They can be extraordinarily cruel to one another and especially to adults. For about the first hour of the movie I hated them and it. But then their very pure kidness started to come out and win me over—the flashes of vulnerability, and clarity, the highs of hilarity, the insane mood swings. The gnawing fear of abandonment. The ravages of sugar. I ended up liking Moonee and this movie very much as it wound inexorably toward an obvious fate. As if to counteract that, The Florida Project serves up a stunningly pointless finish. You might have thought you can see what's coming, but you can't. I respect Baker for trying it, but it's so jarring and discontinuous that the movie would probably have been a little better if he had just sucked it up and finished it off conventionally. I give Baker full credit for Prince's performance—it's coached and rehearsed to some degree, and likely required a lot of patience to get, but it's remarkable and the best thing about the movie.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Wings of the Dove (1902)

After the miserable experience I had with The Sacred Fount, I was prepared for the worst with the last three (and generally most acclaimed) of Henry James's novels. But I should have remembered things are acclaimed for a reason, because I enjoyed The Wings of the Dove quite a bit. Yes, the sentences are long and the abstractions, not to mention the vague pronouns, piled high. It requires some patience. The most interesting character in the whole thing, and arguably the main character, Kate Croy, is also one of his best, even though she is kept mostly on the sidelines and out of sight. But she is responsible for the main plot, a complicated scheme about (what else?) marriage and money. There are points to groan over. As often with James, neither the characters nor the motivations seem quite recognizable as human, but more like fevered figments of James's hot stove brain. Yet the monstrousness of what he imagines them doing is hard to deny. It sets you back. I saw the 1997 film version when it was new, but it's little help. This is not a novel easily filmed. The dithering, smeary, precisely imprecise language is ultimately what makes it. Our narrator—clearly possessed of a sensibility, and perhaps an agenda, hiding some things from us as he reveals others—is perpetually forestalled in explicating concrete action, constantly checking himself and adjusting for nuance. James returns here, in sideways fashion, to his earliest themes, as Europeans are once again trifling with the naivete of Americans. What's maddening is how elusive the action seems, constantly raising the question of whether James has really settled on the single and best way to tell this story. It's quite arguable that he has not. So much happens offstage, for example, that could be emphasized differently or more strongly. That applies equally to the action we do see. It feels like an implicit declaration that reality is impossible to know. We have the facts of this story, a sense of intrigue among fewer than a dozen people, and a sense of how we might feel about them, but very little is certain. Almost nothing, in fact. There is so much more we could know. Yet the ending also feels satisfactory—there's a certain symmetry to the actions and all the ambiguity. James seems to be operating on a whole new level here. Is it perhaps some perspicacious new editor and/or publisher? I couldn't help noticing that the "interlocutor" level in these major novels drops off dramatically (the preferred tic for the usage largely become "companion," which I didn't count). If there is something clumsy in the insights, descriptions, and most obviously in the language, it also feels measured and careful. James seems to be doing exactly what he intends here, and there is a strong sense of clarity to the confident way it moves. In some ways, it feels like you could spend a lifetime reading it, or did.

"interlocutor" count = 4 / 608 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Malibu (2016)

Approximately the fourth album by Anderson .Paak (also known as Breezy Lovejoy, which does nothing to explain the dot in his present stage name), Malibu won a small host of honorifics last year: a ranking appearance in the annual Pazz & Jop poll of critics (#11), a nomination for a Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy (rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?), and repository of four singles ("The Season/Carry Me," "Am I Wrong," "Room in Here," and "Come Down"). None of them charted, but the sleek uptempo "Come Down" is what drew me here in the first place. .Paak has a well-worn voice that sounds comfortably stretched thin with exhaustion, and a rolling huffing way of building up to irresistible pop speed. It never gets much better than "Come Down," but "Come Down" was good enough to carry interest in the whole thing for a while. As so often for me these days, the skits, found sound, and other chatter that can clutter the spaces between tracks throws the momentum off. They are rarely that clever, usually stinking of inside jokes. I love "Come Down" but I'm sick to death of the eight seconds at the end given over to some educational film narrator sounding square ("before Vietnam, when boys were long and hair was short, the center of the surfing world was a place called Malibu"). But .Paak's album is otherwise supremely generous, clocking in at over an hour with 16 full-length tracks and plenty of good ones. The skits in this case are attached to the tracks rather than standing on their own, a certain concession to shuffle and/or streaming format, I'm sure, though irritating in its own way. In a couple of cases they seem intended to connect songs, which of course fails on shuffle. Who listens to albums these days in the given track sequence? I do, for these reviews (you're welcome), but otherwise I don't much. I've been on majority shuffle play for some time now, and I suspect many others are too. Malibu has some swell songs—I count all four singles at least good, plus the sexxee Marvin Gaye parody "Water Fall (Interluuube)," and also "Your Prime," "Celebrate" (which feels like a Sly Stone song, maybe a little too much), and "The Dreamer." I'm sure I'm going on about the skits too much, and Anderson .Paak just happens to be my convenient venting place. But the only hope to make sense of them is by listening to this album in sequence, and it's just not strong enough as a whole to bear the scrutiny. Put the eight songs I've named into a playlist, or listen to the album a few times and pick out your own favorites. Some of them you'll want to return to again and again. The album itself, maybe not so much.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

"The Eighty-Yard Run" (1941)

Read story by Irwin Shaw online.

Irwin Shaw's story is a case of fairly conventional midcentury white man's anxiety about failure. It's skillfully done, switching point of view between settings 15 years apart, but the basic idea seems to be how tragic it is that a white man has failed. The fact that his wife becomes successful after he has failed only makes his failure worse. You might want to argue that using football is verging on cliché but I will agree with you only on the general point about sports, because how often does football show up in literary efforts so artfully described? Not often. And the title event is not without its twist of irony. The central memory and high point in the life of Christian Darling (another one for the what-a-name file) actually occurs in a practice session, not even a real game, let alone at a crucial game point. It's even likely he has always exaggerated how good the run was, and still does. But it cemented his place on the starting team, he believes. He was soon overshadowed by others and by his own lackluster performance. The 15 years in question, by the way, span 1925, when he dazzled himself in a scrimmage, and 1940, when he is a much diminished 35-year-old. He lived high off his potential at first, marrying the daughter of a rich man who set them up. That took some of the sting off the football mediocrity. But then the Depression came and all was ruination. This story was written before Pearl Harbor—the basic arc here is about the '20s and '30s. After the stock market crash, after his father-in-law kills himself, Darling becomes a mumbling incompetent. His wife steps up and begins a successful career in publishing as a literary editor. The story is just full of clichés, but what's interesting about them is how they capture a sense of US life that would change radically with World War II. It captures that moment before Pearl Harbor in almost perfect amber. Among other things, football would go on to become the favorite sport in the US and a generator of grotesque levels of revenue. But that's far in the future for 1940, when it's still kind of a gentleman ruffian's unusual hobby, more like, say, rugby is considered today. I don't feel much sympathy for Christian Darling. I wish there were more here about his wife, Louise. I wish the whole thing were about her and told from her point of view. But you can't have everything. And it's a really nicely turned story, no matter how silly or strange some of its ideas may be, which is nothing to take for granted.

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

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Vinegar Girl (2016)

This is the first I've heard of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, published by Penguin Random House under the Hogarth Press imprint, which was originally founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The idea for the series is to let contemporary novelists give their fictional takes on Shakespeare plays. Eight books total, launched in October 2015, and they are still rolling out. Others feature Margaret Atwood riffing on The Tempest and Jeanette Winterson on The Winter's Tale. Anne Tyler here takes on The Taming of the Shrew. There's actually a compatibility between the two I hadn't anticipated. Not that I know the Shakespeare that well, but it's not hard to see his narrative bones constituting a handy frame on which Tyler can drape her modern-day chatterboxes. I think Petruchio's personality may have shifted some in the Russian immigrant Pyotr, but Kate is a pretty straight translation: an independent-minded woman caught in various social snares, and so perpetually aggrieved—"the shrew." It feels like Tyler is having a lot of fun with this and enjoying herself more than she has in a while, and that's infectious. Already it's one of her funniest—Shakespeare gets credit too, as they are usually his situations, notwithstanding that it takes place in Baltimore and involves elderly people incapable of mastering today's technology. The love affair—or "like affair" might be the better term for once—between Pyotr and Kate is the heartbeat of the whole thing, advancing from awkward arranged marriage to a satisfying happy ending that proceeds directly from the characters of the principals, who are equally likable, together or apart. The 29-year-old Kate is a perfect image of women in the 21st century and the choices they face. Some of the changes in her relationship with Pyotr feel like they come too fast. But they are never inexplicable, often quite to be expected, and it doesn't hurt to know the action is backstopped by the immortal bard himself. Whatever the causes, Tyler feels more liberated to work and indulge her own strengths, the usual vexing and comical issues of intimate family interdependencies, with plenty of sweet sweet pathos on the side. The rumors surrounding her last novel, that it was her last and now she would retire, appear to be overstated. I don't want to be greedy or anything, but here's hoping there's a little more where this came from.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975)

Belgium / France, 201 minutes
Director/writer: Chantal Akerman
Photography: Babbette Mangoit
Editor: Patricia Canino
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte

It's appropriate, predictable, and a little depressing that the one appearance of a woman director in the top 100 movies of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (presently barely making it in at all at #98) would be a landmark of feminist culture. The only other two movies directed by women in all of the top 300 (for a total representative ratio of 1.0%) are Beau Travail by Claire Denis at #155 and The Piano by Jane Campion at #211. Thus, with The Piano similarly defined by its feminist preoccupations, we might estimate that the only way 67% of movies made by women can be taken seriously is by bearing these themes, which are also certain commercial death. So it's another one of those traps—the kind that perpetually keep the people in power in power. Like credit in finance. Like patience in racial politics.

So it's not surprising that Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig in a bravura one-woman show), whose name and street address provide the title of this very long and slow movie, ultimately has to be taken as an angry woman. It's mostly hard to see, however, as she spends most of her time alone at home ostentatiously wearing a placid exterior with a housecoat, skirt, cardigan sweater, and low heels. She's a single mother raising a son of about 15. She was widowed six years earlier and now appears to be supporting herself as a prostitute in the afternoons. This is established in the first 30 minutes. In the scenes with men she is shown from the neck to the knees in profile, her head cut off by the frame. These scenes are as routinized as practically everything else in the picture. But they turn out to be only a small part, at least in terms of onscreen minutes.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

"The Barber's Unhappiness" (1999)

Read story by George Saunders online.

George Saunders's story is overwhelmed by a voice, which in turn has been overwhelmed by life and circumstances. The voice belongs to the barber of the title, who believes he should be married and living a conventional life. But it doesn't appear to be something he actually wants. He is like a character from Seinfeld, absurdly criticizing his prospects, which are mostly fantasies anyway that play through his head, apparently unceasingly. He sees a woman, spins a fantasy of wooing and winning her, and then spins further fantasies of the fights and troubles they would have, and from there flies into brief rages about women, and life, and circumstances. The barber is practically the only real person in the whole story. That's not entirely true. He meets people in a remedial driving course he has been required to attend for legal reasons. Details are not necessary in a mind so full of itself. Solipsism, thy name is this barber. Yet, again like those characters from Seinfeld, it's hard not to like this guy—or, at least, the rolling energies of his voice: "He ogled old women and pregnant women and women whose photographs were passing on the sides of buses and, this morning, a woman with close-cropped black hair and tear-stained cheeks, who wouldn't be half bad if she'd just make an effort, clean up a little and invest in some decent clothes, some white tights and a short skirt maybe, knee boots and a cowboy hat and a cigarillo, say, and he pictured her kneeling on a crude Mexican sofa, in a little mud hut, daring him to take her, and soon they'd screwed themselves into some sort of beanfield while some gaucho guys played soft guitars, although actually he'd better put the gaucho guys behind some trees or a rock wall so they wouldn't get all hot and bothered from watching the screwing and swoop down and stab him and have their way with Miss Hacienda as he bled to death, and come to think of it, forget the gauchos altogether, he'd just put some soft guitars on the stereo in the hut and leave the door open, although actually what was a stereo doing in a Mexican hut? Were there outlets?" That's from the first paragraph. It goes on like that awhile—a jumble of unpacked Freudian impulses that veer in all directions, with little to no evident self-consciousness. It's often very funny, sometimes a little poignant, and just a little exhausting. But I wouldn't miss it for anything.

Pastoralia by George Saunders

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Law & Order, s3 (1992-1993)

The third season of Law & Order sees all its many potent strands continuing to come into sharp focus—it's practically at the top of its form now. The stories are fresh with news currents, and they are twisty, complicated, and satisfying—there's usually a dead person in the opening scene and always a court trial in the second half, but getting from here to there is never the same, nor are the results ever predictable. The casts and performances are great. It's not just the crimes and criminals that get attention. Sometimes they are dealt with perfunctorily while larger issues of justice and procedure are at stake. Notably, some of the hardest fought ones are still lost, a tendency that would fade some over the years as the show more and more accommodated the necessities of managing long-term hit TV. (Producer Dick Wolf and crew have succeeded at that too, as the inferior spinoff Special Victims Unit will match the longevity of the original if it's renewed this year.) The most important development in this season is the coming of Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), as the detective partner of Mike Logan (Chris Noth). After S. Epatha Merkerson and Sam Waterston, neither of whom has shown up yet (except Merkerson as someone other than her later character ... which happened with Orbach too for that matter) ... Lenny Briscoe would become the series' third most ubiquitous character, appearing across some 14 seasons. It's not hard to see the appeal. He just clicks in like he belongs. He is more recognizably New York City in his attitude and manner, with a memorable hangdog face, a bent for cynical quips, hints of a sad backstory, and something that is simply likable. Orbach was actually more of a Broadway song and dance man by trade but his aging face carried the new persona well, already used effectively for example by Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors a few years earlier. Neither Paul Sorvino nor George Dzundza had been happy as Logan's earlier partners. The show didn't suit their styles, for different reasons (and though they were both fine), but Orbach owns the role of Lenny Briscoe from the first scenes.

More telling for the natural strengths of the show, perhaps, is the use made of Dr. Elizabeth Olivet (Carolyn McCormick), a forensic psychologist and regular character introduced in the previous season, which offered a sophisticated wrinkle to the police procedural, a skillful binding element to tie the two sides of the premise—"the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders"—even more tightly together. This closing of this dramatic loop of the justice system was the single greatest innovation of Law & Order. Yet in many ways, here in the third season, the fine points are still being figured out. Olivet sheds a lot of light on the procedures, consulting with detectives and prosecutors alike, offering many interesting angles around insanity, competence, social welfare, and other legal matters. But, in perhaps the single most famous episode in the 20-year run of the show, which occurs in this season (it certainly seemed to be shown all the time in reruns) they go pell-mell into a reckless place, making her a victim. The case involves a creepy gynecologist who amuses himself by molesting and raping his patients, under the cover of local anesthetics given ostensibly for procedures. No doubt it has antecedents in a real case or cases. It smacks of a certain flavor of '80s and '90s true crime. And it's an opportunity to air out issues of rape and the credibility of accusers, so with incidental acute relevance at the moment, notably in the way it resolves. I wouldn't say the show cheats on the gravity—in the last scene, Olivet is seen in therapy session beginning to deal with it. But it still seems a terrible abuse of a character, even if she is back in further episodes with minimal fallout. Perhaps because so. Sometimes, maybe, using the power to traumatize and even kill major characters in a continuing series might be a little oversold. See also Ed McBain and many of his women characters. Or maybe I've just seen that episode too often.

Monday, January 01, 2018

New Year memo

Happy new year, everyone. Or, for the cynical: Happy another year older and deeper in debt. Hope you are all alive well and doing fine. I stayed busy with blogging this past year (nearly broke 200 posts!), though I suppose much of it was about relief from and escape from the unpleasant realities going on around me. It's terrible to live powerlessly in a time of decaying empire led by a clown, but obviously things could be worse. In fact, I predict they're going to be. Brrr. It's cold out there now. Stay warm and help others stay warm too. We're all we've got in times like these.

I plan to continue blogging, for the relief and escape, for the pleasure of a purpose, and as always stamina allowing. No big changes ahead here. The short story project should finish by summer, and will likely be followed by a similar exercise with science fiction stories, which I somehow completely neglected in the first one (though I did get some choice horror titles in). That's Thursdays. Fridays continue movies, Saturdays albums, Sundays books, and Mondays more newish movies.

Here are 20 great movies I saw in 2017:

1. O.J.: Made in America (2016)
2. 20th Century Women (2016)
3. Get Out (2017)
4. American Honey (2016)
5. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
6. Lady Bird (2017)
7. The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
8. Baby Driver (2017)
9. Colossal (2016)
10. Phoenix Forgotten (2017)
11. Irreversible (2002)
12. Pitfall (1948)
13. Together (2000)
14. Spring Breakers (2012)
15. The Strangers (2008)
16. Morning Glory (1933)
17. Frank (2014)
18. Nymphomaniac, Vol. I (extended) (2013)
19. Gaslight (1944)
20. Christmas in July (1940)

And finally, the annual reminder to GO BUY MY BOOK.