Sunday, July 29, 2018

Twelve Years a Slave (1853)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Led Zeppelin III (1970)

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

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

Friday, July 27, 2018

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

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

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

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

Thursday, July 26, 2018

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

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

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, July 23, 2018

First Reformed (2017)

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

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Zodiac (1986)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

"Flies" (1967)

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

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Closer (1980)

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

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

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Separation (2011)

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

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

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

Thursday, July 12, 2018

"Evensong" (1967)

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

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, July 09, 2018

RBG (2018)

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

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Cass Timberlane (1945)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Back to the Future (1985)

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

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

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

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Dangerous Visions (1967)

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

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

Sunday, July 01, 2018

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

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

In case it's not at the library.