Friday, March 30, 2018

Dogville (2003)

Netherlands / Denmark / UK / France / Finland / Sweden / Germany / Italy / Norway, 178 minutes
Director/writer: Lars von Trier
Photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Editor: Molly Marlene Stensgaard
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, Jean-Marc Barr, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Udo Kier, Chloe Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgard, John Hurt

Dogville actually represents the first installment in a "USA—Land of Opportunities" trilogy by the infamous bad boy director and screenwriter Lars von Trier, who by reputation so hates the US he has never even visited. The second episode, Manderlay, came two years later but flopped commercially and the third has yet to be made. For what it's worth, the funding for this movie came from no fewer than nine countries, not one of them the US. So perhaps inevitably I was mindful of that hatred while revisiting this lengthy and often annoying picture. Among other things it made me a little defensive about my homeland, even in this day and age when we are sliding into the abyss. At three hours, with heavy-handed aesthetic pretensions and an all-star cast representing many different phases of cinema history—Lauren Bacall! James Caan! Harriet Andersson! Chloe Sevigny! Ben Gazzara!—Dogville is self-evidently a Very Big Movie.

At its core, the premise is more or less an illustrative enactment of some social psychology experiment where people are given the opportunity to make moral choices and fail miserably—the Milgram Experiment, maybe, or the Stanford Prison Experiment. We're talking about human issues here more than American. At the same time, the signifiers make it hard to miss the point. It takes place in a semi-abandoned mining town in Colorado (called Dogville, the implication being that it's barely fit even for dogs), with not one but two characters named Thomas Edison, and placing gangsters, gun violence, and corrupt law enforcement in prominent positions of impregnable power. There's even an elaborate 4th of July celebration. The only thing missing is apple pie and ice cream.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

"Hunting the Deceitful Turkey" (1906)

Read story by Mark Twain online.

This Mark Twain piece is probably too short and yet discursive to be properly considered a narrative, but those are also the qualities that make it fun to read. At three pages (seven paragraphs) it's more like a quick snapshot reminiscence, or perhaps a tirade. What's best about it I think is how funny it is, as intended. The narrator has a grudge against turkeys. He's not shy about it. He seethes and is unrelenting in his condemnation, out of all proportion. One of Twain's best tricks is exactly this, adopting the tone and telling the little stories, while slipping in obvious but unexpected exaggerations. So the turkey hunt lasts from dawn until after dark, with the bird cleverly playing him, forever eluding him by inches. At one point the narrator tries to explain why he doesn't just shoot it, but it makes no sense, again out of all proportion with everything else: "I never did it, although it was my right, for I did not believe I could hit her; and besides, she always stopped and posed, when I raised the gun, and this made me suspicious that she knew about me and my marksmanship, and so I did not care to expose myself to her remarks." Twain was 71 when he wrote this piece and it has the easy-rolling tenor of a natural storyteller. Knowing Twain's fiction and travel writing I'm already predisposed to like anything by him that comes my way, though it's hard to guess what someone would make of him if this were the first they read by him. It's so short, and really silly—something that can be read in 15 minutes or less. But it made me laugh. Figuring out the trick the turkey was playing and how it worked. Then that the whole thing goes on so long. And all of his conclusions and suppositions about guns, food, hunters and hunting, and turkeys, enlarging upon them with an air of moral certainty, yet never quite seeming connected to reality. Somehow it comes out funny. I think it's the aggrieved voice, created from certain American characters that are still not hard to recognize today. I hear one of my uncles in this.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

Monday, March 26, 2018

Black Panther (2018)

This was the second year in a row we've seen a breakout African-American movie released in the dead of winter and I've been surprised both times. I thought Get Out was pretty good, but it's not already in the top 20 highest-grossing movies of all time. After Black Panther became a certifiable megahit practically on its opening weekend, I felt somewhat duty bound to hie myself off to see it. (Not, full disclosure, that I've done so for any of the following movies ahead of Black Panther's current #13 place on the all-time list: Jurassic World, Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, and The Fate of the Furious.) I'm duty bound to report that Black Panther is indeed a superhero movie, with stunts, boffo special effects, a Stan Lee cameo, baffling costumery, the sense you're already a little behind, etc. But it's directed by Ryan Coogler, whose Fruitvale Station and especially Creed really impressed me. It also has wonderful complexities, some rousing moments, an African setting, and an all-star majority black cast and good performances all over the place (Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Winston Duke ... I was sorry to see them shoehorn in a white guy, Martin Freeman, as perfectly likable as he is). Black Panther first came to life in the comics in 1966, the same year that the Black Panther Party did, though I'm not sure of any connection. Wikipedia describes his superhero essentials: "... relies on his proficiency in science, rigorous physical training, hand-to-hand combat skills, and access to wealth and advanced technology to combat his enemies." Which sounds like Batman actually. Things are more mystical now, at least in this movie, what with a magical scientifical purple herbal brew, a powerful metallic element called vibranium, and generous helpings of we-can-do-anything technology. I like conceiving of a superhero as the king of an African nation—the mysterious Wakanda—and even better I like the central conflict in this story: whether Wakanda should continue to stay out of sight of the rest of the world or share its powerful technology, notably with Africans everywhere who are less fortunate. Michael B. Jordan, who is shaping up to be Coogler's Robert De Niro, is stellar as the villain who isn't really a villain if you think about it. He's not even that misguided. He usually has a point. On the other hand, times being what they are, he also reminded me of Donald Trump in his grab for power and the ways he uses it, not to mention the deep-seated psychological wounding. We're supposed to be going to the movies to get away from this stuff!!! Worth seeing even if you don't like superhero movies that much (though it is a superhero movie). P.S. In the contest to give an imaginary metallic element the silliest name, this movie's "vibranium" still lags behind the gold standard, Avatar's "unobtanium."

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Narrative of William W. Brown (1847)

This is another of the shorter slave narratives, just over 50 pages with all the hoopla of prefaces, acknowledgments, and introductions. As always, the stamp of some white person or organization is necessary to see the thing into print and generally stand up for its veracity. As the publication dates of these narratives move deeper into the century the sponsoring white is more and more often formally Abolitionist. What a terrible portrait of 19th-century America these narratives give us. In fact, both William Brown, and Frederick Douglass in his narrative, express nothing but contempt for Christianity, at least in its American version. Brown is more willing to toss away the whole thing as evil, quoting Bible passages that are approving of slavery. The Christian hypocrisy is still one of the greatest shames of slavery, after the corruption into sadism. Brown's narrative often focuses on how families were separated and torn apart, sometimes deliberately to control behavior. He reports on how many owners with limited resources would invest in a young woman to breed them for additional property. It's often, though not always, the master providing the seed, of course. So we also come down to this horrific language of slavery: breeding, training, striping. "Striping" is a term I'd never heard before, for whipping and scarring, and now I also know it's in the Bible. One more reason I'm comfortable with the wholesale rejection of American Christianity by these later narratives. Obviously Brown and Douglass are aware of the Christian roots in the Abolitionist movement itself and temper their tones somewhat to accommodate that. But their feelings are unmistakable. William Brown's story is another one of escape—two attempts, actually, as the first one fails when he is incautious in the North. He suffers terribly for this attempt, as it leads to the final break-up of his family when his mother and sister are sold separately into the Deep South, a certain doom. This narrative is set in Missouri, a more recent slavery state than the rest of the South. Brown shows how the geographical position of Missouri enabled it to be a staging area for kidnapping African-Americans from the North into slavery. Brown had good experiences and bad with whites. He took the name of one who was kind to him in Ohio. Before that he was only William, and even that was taken from him by an owner whose nephew of that name came to live with the family who owned him. Of all his indignities and suffering, this is the one that most seems to rankle Brown. It's strange to us only because most of us have never had to face that treatment in such cut-and-dried fashion—the total obliteration of identity at will.

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

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Future (1992)

Leonard Cohen was back once and for all (more or less) with The Future, which followed 1988's I'm Your Man and a revival of interest in him. Now he was a fixture of popular culture, the crusty croaker and natty dresser in the suit and fedora hat. The poet from Canada. The '60s survivor. The man of Montreal, New York, and Los Angeles. It was a living. The movies were continuing to absorb and disseminate him, which is when you can start to feel like you've made it. Three songs here (the title song, "Waiting for the Miracle," and "Anthem") can be heard in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (a movie, full disclosure, I have never had much affection for). "Waiting for the Miracle" got a return engagement in Wonder Boys (a better movie, packed full of Cohen, Neil Young, Tim Hardin, and other usual suspects, with more Bob Dylan than anything). It's evident on The Future that Cohen has grown wise to the utility of surrounding himself with first-rate studio hands—the song lengths alone speak to the easy-rolling groove-making going on here, with four of the nine songs running over seven minutes and, for the first time, an instrumental (the sweet and stately album closer, "Tacoma Trailer"). Yes, the grooves lean toward adult contemporary, but they are grooves. And the best are full of irresistible little hooks too, often in the arrangements. The album has a number of undifferentiated producer credits—six names, including Rebecca de Mornay, Cohen's girlfriend at the time—so it's hard to know who to credit for the lovely clean and inviting sound, which can get busy with orchestral and choral accompaniments but never seems cluttered. Maybe Cohen himself—he's the first producer named. It's hard to believe he knew his way around a soundboard, but certainly he would get final approval, so OK. Sharon Robinson is here again, but only collaborating on "Waiting for the Miracle." As the title implies, The Future is probably most famous for contemplating the future in that particular present. Cohen was publicly absorbing the history going down around him, notably, in 1989, Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall. "Democracy" ("is coming to the USA") jeers at the US's ability to cope with these world changes—that's been an easy position to take all my life, and has the benefit of making you look prescient later (at least in these particular terrible times). "Anthem" looks in another direction entirely, much beloved for its lines "There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in." If that seems trite or saccharine, at least there's something weirdly satisfying about seeing Cohen as the pollyanna for once. I don't like the Irving Berlin cover, "Always," and it's the longest song here, so it's not like The Future can't be a bit of a bumpy road, especially if, like me, you are slightly skeptical about the Cohen project. But it never sounds bad either.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

"Master and Man" (1895)

Read story by Leo Tolstoy online.

We've encountered a few severe snowstorms in the stories for this project so far, but Leo Tolstoy's could well be the best, or worst. Again, perhaps the biggest surprise in this project has been discovering how much I enjoy these harsh nature stories. In this one, the master Vasili Andreevich is eager to close a business deal and insists on traveling through a snowstorm that day to do so. He takes along one of his servants, Nikita, who sets up the horse and sledge, and away they go. Goodbye. The horse, of course, soon becomes equal partner among the three, in terms of personality and affect. For better or worse, my heart always goes out to these animals. It's obvious Tolstoy has lived with harsh winter conditions because his descriptions are detailed and telling. For example, the squeaking of the sledge's runners against the snow is a sure indication of extreme cold. The storm is fierce with extremely poor visibility. Even so, Master wants to take a shortcut. Before long they lose the road, and not long after that they are completely lost. The more that the horse and the servant are left to make decisions, the better off they are. They travel in circles and finally arrive at a village, where they are amazed by how far off the track they have traveled. They stop for directions, and to warm up. At that house they are invited to stay for the night, and Nikita is in favor of it, but Master is impatient to conclude his business. Again they lose their way, and then they lose the light. Caught by darkness, they must shelter in place for the night, knowing they are lost. When morning comes it turns out they are not far from shelter, but this story is more about the night, in which two of them die. Only Nikita survives, because of the noble actions of Master, although when it comes to that they are all three deranged by the conditions and hypothermia and it's hard to say with complete confidence that his actions were truly selfless. But the results are, and what counts most in this story are the characters, who are rich and complex. Well, the horse is a horse, but that's all he has to be. Andreevich and Nikita and their relationship turns out to be intricate, beautiful, and not at all predictable, though entirely believable. Great story.

Master and Man and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man (1995)

When you think about it, it's not surprising that, if Norman Mailer were going to write a book about art, it would be about Picasso. He always preferred his giants to be 20th-century egomaniacs—perhaps something about the reflection in the mirror. To some degree I'm on board with that myself, at least a little. There was a lot I didn't know about Picasso, so among other things I have to count Mailer's "interpretive biography" as informative. "Interpretive biography" means very little original research (even Marilyn had some), but rather a survey of select existing literature, major biographies and some criticism, along with his own take on Picasso and his work. Mailer's main idea here is that all of Picasso's innovations were done by the time he was 35, in 1916, effectively discounting one of the most prolific careers in art history. Mailer sees an incident involving the Louvre and stolen pieces of art (including da Vinci's Mona Lisa) as the point where something in Picasso broke. It's a tumultuous time in his life—a breakup of a long-term relationship, the death by cancer a few years later of his next girlfriend, and the coming of World War I are all equal contributors, along with plain old aging. I'm not even sure there was such a drop-off. A few samples of Picasso's art after 1916 in this book are pretty impressive. In fact, all the pictures, including color plates, are among the best reasons to dawdle along with Mailer through the Picasso story. I hadn't known what a prodigy Picasso was as a child. I didn't know how the Blue Period, Rose Period, and Cubism fit, exactly. I suspect someone with more background might get more out of this, but I'm not sure how much they'd like it—that's the pugnacious Mailer problem. Mailer notes early that Picasso was a project he'd been giving thought to since 1962, when he was close to a book deal. He has an interesting eye and his discussions of the art are often lucid. It didn't entirely surprise me, given his versatility as a writer, but I hadn't expected him to be so good in the realm of art, a pleasant surprise. He is dismissive of Gertrude Stein but I enjoyed the discussion of her, and again, this was my first exposure to so many details and so much context about Picasso's life, work, and art. Weirdly, perhaps, Picasso in this telling reminded me a lot of Andy Warhol—maybe it's the combination of celebrity and work ethic. Picasso's art speaks for itself, and if I have any complaint here it's that there's not more art. Mailer generally stays out of his own way.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

France, 16 minutes
Director/editor: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel
Photography: Albert Duverger, Jimmy Berliet
Cast: Simone Mareuil, Pierre Batcheff, Jaume Miravitlles, Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel

This landmark of Surrealist art, a collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali on the precipice of worldwide economic collapse, is short but it stays with you. Director Buñuel and cowriter Dali famously worked to extrude anything of particular meaning that could be taken from it. "No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted," Buñuel wrote. "Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything." Quite right, and nothing adds up except, intuitively and in flashes, on certain Freudian levels. But some things can be rationally laid at its doorstep. It packs a punch because it saves its best for first—a brief scene in which, through the magic of montage (or editing, or cutting), a woman's eyeball appears to be sliced through by a razor. Among other things it prefigured a common strategy of action and horror pictures, which is to insert a spectacular set piece right up front (Saving Private Ryan, say). In psychological terms, you are thus softened. Shock and numbness soon have hold. In Un Chien Andalou, why a man (it's Buñuel, by the way) would be slicing a woman's eyeball at all is not even a question that occurs to anyone after witnessing it. For many first-time viewers, the remaining minutes of the picture pass in a kind of desperate muddled delirium. What did I just see what? In fact, the eyeball scene, just a matter of seconds, still has the power to make me want to look away and to flinch if I don't. It's the very idea, of course, so naturalistically rendered, that does the work. But the image, however brief, is also viscerally detailed. Even in the few seconds it's onscreen it's readily apparent that it's the eyeball of a dead animal, not the woman, but you do have to be looking at the screen to see it. There are more shocking images that follow, though they tend to pale by comparison: ants crawling in and out of a hole in the palm of a hand, two dead donkeys on a couple of grand pianos, a groping scene that now can seem the most disturbing element in it if you're past the initial shock (this also applies to most of the stuff with animals, for that matter, who were evidently harmed in the making of this picture). These strange images wheel in front of our numbed sensibility and unsliced eyeballs, filling our heads with what? Men dressed in nun's habits (oh that again, Luis), a severed hand making the rounds in a striped box, a butterfly with a marking that might look like a human skull, a mouth wiped right off the face of a man and turned into a woman's armpit hair. "Dream logic"—I suppose that's one way to conceive it. Within the year the world was more worried about things like fascism and a cratered economy, but Un Chien Andalou lives on fresh as ever—fresh, and exceedingly weird.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

"You Could Look It Up" (1941)

Read story by James Thurber online.

The overwhelming point of this amusing baseball anecdote by James Thurber is the dialect, which is almost as charming as it is thick. Some of my favorite locutions here include "the iron eye," "finely," and "all Bethlehem broke loose." I got used to it ("finely") but it was slow going at first. This story was published in 1941 and 10 years later was acted out in reality by St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck, who signed small person Eddie Gaedel (3 feet 7 inches) for a one-time appearance as a pinch hitter. You could look it up. Not surprisingly, Gaedel—and the wonderfully named Pearl du Monville in this story—are walked on four consecutive pitches. Well, that's not exactly the way it goes down in this story, but I'll let you get to the details on your own. Veeck claims he was unaware of the story, or at least he said, in conversation with New York Giants manager John McGraw, that he'd had the idea before 1941. This suggests to me that the premise was already part of the oral lore of baseball. Thurber turned it into this story. Veeck made it a one-time stunt in a ballgame. In both instances it was hilariously cited as making a mockery of the game, which is rich. Me, I like baseball anecdotes quite a bit. This is a little more formal, even with the dialect, but still has an appealing air of yarn spinning. It might even be fun to hear it read aloud by someone who can do it justice, although as always the risks for flopping would be great. Oral storytelling necessarily requires some theatrical skill, especially when dialect is involved, which can lead to wincing. If anything, this story might be too long for just an anecdote. The best ones are quick. Joaquin Andujar on how he would pitch to himself: "Fastball down the middle. What do you think, I'd try to get myself out?" Or Don Drysdale's view that an intentional walk was a waste of three pitches. The anecdote of the small pinch hitter here is easily told just by stating the premise, so the story feels a little bloated, and might be annoying if you are not a baseball fan or don't enjoy reading dialect. I have my problems in the latter area, but Thurber's pretty good at it and also at telling a story. Plus it's a classic, you know.

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Top 40

1. Treponem Pal, "Planet Claire"
2. Kesha, "Praying"
3. Wolf Alice, "Don't Delete the Kisses"
4. Kesha, "Woman"
5. St. Vincent, "New York"
6. JAY-Z, "The Story of O.J."
7. Suicide Commandos, "Try Again"
8. Calvin Harris, "Feels"
9. Sevyn Streeter, "Before I Do"
10. Te Vaka, "Lakalaka"
11. Post Malone feat. 21 Savage, "Rockstar"
12. Big Sean, "Bounce Back"
13. Paloma Faith, "Crybaby"
14. Christian Nodal, "Probablemente"
15. Toni Braxton, "Deadwood"
16. GoldLink, "Crew REMIX"
17. Playboi Carti, "Wokeuplikethis*"
18. Ed Sheeran, "Perfect"
19. Nadia Rose, "Big Woman"
20. Spoon, "Do I Have to Talk You Into It"
21. SZA, "Normal Girl"
22. Slowdive, "Star Roving"
23. Brockhampton, "Gummy"
24. War on Drugs, "Thinking of a Place"
25. LCD Soundsystem, "Tonite"
26. Perfume Genius, "Slip Away"
27. Lil Uzi Vert, "XO TOUR Llif3"
28. The xx, "I Dare You"
29. Sheer Mag, "Expect the Bayonet"
30. Killers, "Run for Cover"
31. Johnny Jewel, "Windswept (Reprise)"
32. Jens Lekman, "What's That Perfume You Wear?"
33. Billie Eilish, "Bellyache"
34. Vince Staples, "BagBak"
35. Ibeyi, "Deathless"
36. Algiers, "The Underside of Power"
37. Yaeji, "Raingurl"
38. Kali Uchis feat. Jorja Smith, "Tyrant"
39. Dua Lipa feat. Miguel, "Lost in Your Light"
40. Sir Rosevelt, "Robert Baker"

Monday, March 12, 2018

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

I'm sure it speaks to my semi-isolated US-centric view of things that I spent most of Call Me by Your Name waiting for something bad to happen. Spoiler alert I'm happy to say nothing does—mostly only good things, though it can be a little painful getting to some of them. I might have known, because it's a coming-of-age movie, which are generally more tender affairs, and because the screenplay was written by James Ivory, the long-time collaborator with Ismail Merchant, who together created a genteel upholstered cinema empire in the '80s and '90s (A Room With a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, etc.). Director Luca Guadigno was responsible for 2009's I Am Love, a sumptuous Tilda Swinton vehicle that honestly left me underwhelmed—a beautiful but empty vessel. Guadigno also directed A Bigger Splash in 2015, which I don't know. Those two are the first parts of a trilogy that this movie finishes. Call Me by Your Name is not nearly as stylized as I recall I Am Love being, but it's equally fixated on the ways of the sensuous heart. Set in the summer of 1983 in northern Italy, the story involves Oliver (Armie Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), a young graduate student who is coming to work for six weeks with a distinguished professor of Greek and Roman cultures. Oliver stays with the professor and his family in their villa. Oliver and the family's 17-year-old son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) find they have an instant rapport. It's not without some personality friction, but eventually things get hot between them. I wouldn't say Call Me by Your Name is a fantasy for how accepting everyone in their orbit is of their relationship—it remains clandestine, but Elio gets real and unconditional support from his family and even a quasi-girlfriend. So it's pretty close to a fantasy (at least from my US-centric view). But it certainly feels good to see people treating each other so well. Hammer and Chalamet have a lot to do with making this movie work. The chemistry feels authentic, the intimacy awkward and wonderful by turns, the dilemma posed by what they are doing intimidating. There are no bad people in this movie, which I'm sure is only one reason it got a 10-minute standing ovation at the New York Film Festival last year. The note it ends on, the final image, made me want to stand on my chair clapping for a few minutes too. Well done.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Ambassadors (1903)

A marriage usually looms large in Henry James's tales, which is the case in The Ambassadors, the second of his late three masterpieces. This novel also sees further returns to his themes around relations between the New World and the Old. Our hero, Lambert Strether, has been dispatched from Woollett, Massachusetts, to Paris, France, to collect the lone male heir of the Newsome family, who is wanted to run the family industry. The woman who sent him, Mrs. Newsome, is a widow Strether is interested in marrying for her money. The lone male heir is her nephew, Chad Newsome (compare Christopher Newman). Chad is 30 and presently having an affair with a married woman, Madame Marie de Vionnet. It's quite a pickle and the complications only start there. There are more characters, more intrigue, and more, many more, words. The language as always takes patience, but I'm happy to find The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove are both a cut above some of his novels of the previous 20 years. I'm still a little resentful of all the parsing and unpacking required, but the rewards are there. Strether, who is 55, is so charmed by Chad and Madame de Vionnet that ultimately he fails at his ambassadorial mission. The daughter of Mrs. Newsome, Chad's sister Sarah Pocock, is then dispatched to follow on and close the deal. Thus the plural of the title—first Strether and then Mrs. Pocock. This second team of diplomats, the Pocock entourage, is comical and a little horrifying, an early version of ugly American. In retrospect, perhaps, Mrs. Pocock is the one of them all that keeps her eye on the prize and maintains perspective. When I put myself in her place, and imagine a brother committed to a woman he can never marry—Madame de Vionnet is already married and also a bit older than Chad—I see the point. On the other hand, Chad's easy life and the gentle ways of European society near its best—well, I can see the appeal for Chad too. Mostly what surprises me is how well James keeps such a microscopic story of typical human foible interesting and even mysterious. The strange characters who populate this novel don't entirely make sense. I'm not sure what they're all doing here. But nonetheless something about it is so inspired it is positively a pleasure to battle through. And probably worth going back to as well.

"interlocutor" count = 6 / 518 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Various Positions (1984)

It occurred to me that Leonard Cohen's seventh album came out within a couple of months of VU, the Velvet Underground's surprise release of its remarkable collection of previously unreleased material. I thought I might be able to make something of that, 1960s New York City icons at the crossroads or some such, but I don't remember anyone thinking of both albums together at the time, and really they're very different from one another. VU is pure blast from the past. That's why it's so great. Whereas the Cohen—coming after a five-year hiatus, his longest to that point—is more tentative about entering the future, or at least keeping up with the present. So we get synthesizer keyboards, for example, in the opener, "Dance Me to the End of Love." For all that, it's still Cohen's same plodding tempo and doleful air, occasionally pierced by unexpected words. It's comfortable like an old armchair but I'm not necessarily trying to convert anyone to his cause. As always, he is something of a prickly pear—the poet bona fides often feel more like a kind of con, or joke, though his words can ring, as I say (the aforementioned "dance me to the end of love"). But I didn't go for Various Positions much in its time, or Leonard Cohen either for quite some time. So I was actually a little surprised coming back to find it's the home of "Hallelujah." That song has long struck me as a kind of miracle, not to push too hard on the religious note. I came to it, probably like a lot of people, by way of Jeff Buckley's remarkable cover many years after this album. I know there's a label for it—"secular hymn"—but I say it belongs with real hymns, e.g., "In the Garden" or, especially, "Amazing Grace," which is close to being my single favorite song of all time full stop. Some may consider it trite, maybe as a matter of overexposure, although I can't fathom that myself because I have never been tired of or unmoved by the song and I love to sing it too. It feels right. "Hallelujah" is in that ballpark. Unspeakably beautiful—Cohen's version, Buckley's version, Kate McKinnon's version of Hillary Clinton's version, my version, croaking along. Transcendent. The rest of the album is thus unfortunately left in an embarrassing position, sounding aimless and too casual by comparison. Some songs, like "The Captain," "Hunter's Lullaby," and "Heart With No Companion," are weaker when you notice the words, even wince-worthy. Some, like "If It Be Your Will" and "Hallelujah," make me straight off want to have a conversation with whoever coined the term "secular hymn." (Well, no, never mind, I actually hate those conversations.) I understand Cohen is attempting to have it both ways through the use of ironic distance, but no. No. You can't have it both ways. All you need is "Hallelujah."

Friday, March 09, 2018

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

USA, 89 minutes
Director: Anatole Litvak
Writer: Lucille Fletcher
Photography: Sol Polito
Music: Franz Waxman
Editor: Warren Low
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards, Wendell Corey, Ed Begley, Harold Vermilyea, Leif Erickson, William Conrad, Jimmy Hunt

[Spoilers] This nifty Barbara Stanwyck thriller originated as a radio play first broadcast in 1943. As a result it is at least as set-bound as most movies adapted from stage plays. Yet, at its best, it finds ways to take advantage of the great strength of radio theater, which is an uncanny ability to recruit the listener's imagination. It doesn't hurt that the whole premise here is based on mystifying another object of audio, the technology of the telephone—all those mysterious clicks and shifts in sound quality, like you were hanging your ear into outer space. You could dial zero and talk to a human being in 1948. In 1949, Jack Webb recorded himself placing a long-distance phone call for Dragnet, still a radio show at the time. It takes two minutes and gives some sense of the world at your reach from the inside of your telephone when you picked up the receiver then (listen here, h/t Steven Rubio). That's what the best parts of Sorry, Wrong Number sound like.

The prologue sets the tone: "In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives ... It is the servant of our common needs—the confidante of our inmost secrets ... life and happiness wait upon its ring ... and horror ... and loneliness ... and ... death!!!" (yes, three exclamation points). Stanwyck is Leona Stevenson, an invalid woman in her 30s confined to her bed. She is in New York with her husband, who is there on a business trip, He is supposed to be with her that evening to care for her—her usual nurse has the night off. The movie essentially takes place in real-time though much of what we see is flashbacks. As the picture opens, Leona has been frantically calling her husband's office all evening and only getting a busy signal. Shortly before 10 she calls an operator and asks her to place the call. Somehow she is patched into a phone call she can only hear. The men speaking do not hear her when she speaks. Then she notices their conversation sounds like it is about a murder for hire, scheduled to happen at 11:15 that night. Can you guess? Can you guess?

Thursday, March 08, 2018

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1939)

Read story by James Thurber online.

This brief story by James Thurber, told third-person but with majority interior dialogue of its title character, is amusing but not that insightful, though it's among Thurber's most famous. The basic idea is that this Walter Mitty, a mild-mannered middle-aged man, has a head full of heroic fantasies about himself. They range from wartime scenarios (interesting given the publication date six months before Hitler entered Poland) to grave medical emergencies to high-stakes courtroom dramas. He appears to have little clue about the realities of medical treatment in the one fantasy, where he is an expert on "streptothricosis," a real skin disease, discussing "obstreosis of the ductal tract," a completely made-up procedure. The sound effect "pocketa-pocketa" recurs across a few of these fantasies, and occasionally reality intrudes on them in strange ways, a bit like waking in the fog of a dream. The outside scene involves Mitty taking his wife on a shopping trip and he does some shopping himself. That's about it. It has a few moments that might get you a smile—for example, I enjoyed the "pocketa-pocketa" sound effect—and as with anything published in the New Yorker it's at least a pleasure to read (except for those times, which come, when you tire of the urbane metropolitan voice). In terms of a look at the dark corners of a human soul, no, it's not that. I mean, you know what goes on in your own head, so you know right away what's missing if you give it any thought. No sex fantasies, no revenge fantasies, no brooding or seething. That's not the kind of guy Walter Mitty is (or, more realistically, that part of him is buried out of reach of this story. If he's that alienated from himself I don't want to think about it). A recent figure he reminded me of is Ken Bone, who was briefly famous during the debate season the other year with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Walter Mitty is just a guy going about his workaday shopping business and imagining himself in heroic roles as he does so. You get the impression he does a lot of this, but so do we all, right? And really, his are the sanitized versions and not much more. But fun to read the story.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Mind Blower (1970)

Are people still attempting to make something culturally significant out of selected instances of pornography? It looked like such a natural for a minute there, notably those movies by Gerard Damiano (Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones). Marco Vassi, who took the first name of his pseudonym from Polo, the explorer, hails from Damiano's era (he died in 1989 from complications of AIDS). His fans included Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Kate Millett, and Gore Vidal. As literature, Mind Blower is not bad—I found out about it in a list by rock critic Robert Christgau of his 10 favorite genre novels. Vassi acknowledges both John Fowles and J. Krishnamurti as formative influences, which I guess would be good influences for literary porn. As porn—well, maybe. Different strokes for different folks, you know. I've been mostly immune to written word porn myself for a long time, so it's hard to tell. The story in Mind Blower is about a place called the Institute for Sexual Metatheater (ISM) where there is a lot of fucking going on. The narrator shows up at ISM, has oodles of sex, and learns interesting life lessons under the guidance of the ISM director, one Dr. Tocco. The novel works hard on the edges of taboo and sometimes, plainly, crosses over. It has gay sex early and often, which comports with the popular notions of bisexuality of its time. It has sex with children. Sex with children! That scene would be excised today surely—as a taboo, it has only become more dangerous, and Mind Blower piles on further with odd constraints around its sex with children, which only make it all more strange and disgusting. It taints the novel. More than anything this book is a historical curiosity, an artifact of the 1960s, enabling us to gauge how much things have changed since then. For the most part I think it has its politics right, including gender and gay politics, and race too, but it still feels dated. Not that we won't get back to its open and experimental sexual ideas someday. We're just not there now and probably won't be for some time, and it won't look like this. I admit I got tired of the sex scenes here even though it's a short book with a lot of variety. That's probably the main problem with porn generally. From intoxicatingly fascinating to can't turn away fast enough within a remarkably short span, and extremely difficult to gauge where the line of boredom will come. Sad! Vassi has written several more books, including a memoir called The Stoned Apocalypse, but I'm probably stopping here.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

USA, 102 minutes
Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, King Vidor
Writers: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, L. Frank Baum, Arthur Freed, Irving Brecher, William H. Cannon, Herbert Fields, Jack Haley, E.Y. Harburg, Samuel Hoffenstein, Bert Lahr, John Lee Mahin, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Jack Mintz, Ogden Nash, Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, Sid Silvers
Photography: Harold Rosson
Music: Harold Arlen
Editor: Blanche Sewell
Cast: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Burke, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Terry (Toto)

(Early cut for the Facebook countdown here.)

In the 79 years since its release, The Wizard of Oz has come to represent virtually all things to all people. Several years ago, for example, you can see I attempted to drop the overlay of horror on it for the Facebook countdown, comparing it to It's a Wonderful Life and Blue Velvet. I was sincere—The Wizard of Oz has scared me nearly as much as any other movie. Things like the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys are pretty serious business, and not necessarily just for kids. The joke TV description is funny because it's true: "Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again." More recently I've noticed The Wizard of Oz taken by some as a road movie. It's certainly a cartoon, and obviously a musical, and the Munchkins briefly transport it into Freaks territory. Like Casablanca, it speaks to the power of Hollywood collaboration and against the idea of auteurs, with its five directors and 19 writers. Like A Christmas Story (and It's a Wonderful Life) its reputation was cemented only long after its release, facilitated by television. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon got roped into the circus at some point by stoners. By now, we know The Wizard of Oz so well there's a version of it edited to alphabetize every word. I enjoy it and you might too, a few minutes at a time, but before viewing Of Oz the Wizard take heed of the warning: "This film contains extremely fast editing, flashes of light, abrupt changes in image and sound."

I still forget, or really never knew, the popularity of the original series of children's novels by L. Frank Baum. They arrived at the turn of the century, were wildly loved for decades (though somewhat disreputable among librarians, like Nancy Drew mysteries), and are paid respect in a note at the start of this picture. This iconic 1939 Judy Garland breakout vehicle was actually already the seventh attempt to film Oz—seventh time's the charm, right? It reminds me of the Frankenstein story—once Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was published two centuries ago, stage and then film productions never stopped coming. But now I'm drifting back to talking about it in terms of horror, so let me be clear. I think the best way to view The Wizard of Oz is by taking it as what it's intended to be: an expensive MGM musical built on the bones of vaudeville and meant to be seen in color.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

"A Spinster's Tale" (1940)

Read story by Peter Taylor online.

Peter Taylor's story commits the sin of a man writing first-person as a woman, in this case an adult woman who is remembering incidents from her early adolescence. The fact that she is a spinster—that is, enduring the tragedy of being unmarried—we know only from the title. It's not mentioned in the story. It seems to me, a man, that this is a story about a woman who is adversely affected by the boys and men she grew up around. Her brother (called "Brother"), her father, and her two uncles are all varying shades of drunkard. The formal focus of the story, in fact, is a town drunk named Speed, or "Mr. Speed," as our spinster narrator, Elizabeth, calls him. Her father and his friends call him "Old Speed." Elizabeth develops something of an obsession from her first sight of him: "I beheld Mr. Speed walking like a cripple with one foot on the curb and one in the street. And faintly I could hear him cursing the trees as he passed them, giving each a lick with his heavy walking cane." You get the sense that Mr. Speed represents something larger and more general for her. Perhaps he is the reason she never married—the reason she has decided all men are drunken beasts. She has to take the bad behavior from her family but in the conflict with Speed she is cold, harsh, and condemning. As an interpretation, that might be too easy. Taylor has said he was under some influence of Henry James at the time he wrote this story, so perhaps that accounts for the strange open-ended ambiguities. The title keeps suggesting to me that the story is some kind of explanation—not necessarily for her never marrying, but for some fundamental trait of her personality or her life. Men are brutes and to be treated that way. It seems simplistic, but there's an undeniable rage tucked away in the formally clean language. She ends it on a strange and compelling image: "... my hatred and fear of what [Mr. Speed] had stood for in my eyes has never left me. And ... not a week has passed but that he has been brought to my mind by one thing or another. It was only the other night that I dreamed I was a little girl on Church Street again ... and that there was a drunk horse in our yard."

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