Sunday, September 30, 2018

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

One of the interesting side points of slave narratives is parsing the politics behind them. They were intended in part as an element of information campaigns and picked and chose what they did and did not disclose. Much as today's white US population refuses to believe that unwarranted police abuses happen regularly, let alone disproportionately to African Americans, so back then most whites refused to believe in the worst aspects of slavery. Harriet Jacobs, writing originally as Linda Brent, was unusually clear about the abuses suffered by women, whose children if they became pregnant were the property of their masters—and valuable property. The perverse incentives to rape come in many forms, but siring your own crop of slaves for profit has to be one of the more compelling ones. Jacobs also goes into more detail than usual about how slaves were treated and the punishments they endured. In many cases they were murdered, on purpose or by accident, and buried in unmarked graves. Her narrative is also in line with others as the 19th century went along in terms of more and more rejecting white Christianity as hypocritical. She professes her own faith, influenced by her grandmother, who mostly raised her. In the Library of America collection Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the longest and most detailed narratives, and probably the single best one, though they all deserve to be read, of course. But this might be the one to read if it's only going to be one. Another continuing theme is how hard the laws make it to do anything. Slaves were property and couldn't testify in court any more than domesticated animals. Another perverse incentive—a slave can never testify against you. This narrative has many good stories and lots of description of the way slaves lived and got along. It's the best one yet on the impact of the Fugitive Slave Law, a huge setback for abolitionists in 1850. And it has powerful feminist themes. Jacobs is a deeply moral person but makes no apology for becoming pregnant, given her circumstances. Indeed, as much as anything choosing the father was a way to assert herself with her master, who was determined to have her body and soul. The sad and ridiculous way it plays out after his death is only one more example of how depraved slavery was. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of our great books, whose best counterpart might be Anne Frank's diary.

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

Friday, September 28, 2018

The Big Sleep (1946)

USA, 114 minutes
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, Raymond Chandler
Photography: Sidney Hickox
Music: Max Steiner
Editor: Christian Nyby
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, John Ridgely, Dorothy Malone, Regis Toomey, Charles Waldron, Charles D. Brown, Elisha Cook Jr., Louis Jean Heydt, Bob Steele, Peggy Knudsen, Sonia Darrin, Joy Barlow, Tommy Rafferty

In my period of infatuation with Humphrey Bogart, late teens or so, The Big Sleep always gave me a bad case of cognitive dissonance. I could see that Bogart's turn at the Philip Marlowe private detective created by Raymond Chandler belongs with his best, his best being Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, probably The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, probably High Sierra, and maybe The African Queen (still too young for In a Lonely Place, which was not even in my sights). The Big Sleep also benefits from palpable chemistry between Bogart and Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Rutledge, the quasi-femme fatale and romantic interest. Bogart and Bacall were single when the picture started shooting but married to each other for the rest of their lives by the time it came out. They had been good in director Howard Hawks's 1944 cover of Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not, which was Bacall's first picture. They were even better here.

But The Big Sleep so completely confounds clarity that I resented it, even if Bogart was in every damn scene. The fact that no one, including Chandler, could say who committed one of its murders outraged me. Not that I was noticing specific plot holes—I wasn't even sure I was tracking basic through-lines half the time, especially with new characters still arriving even into the last third. Also, it never helped that anyone discussing the picture always cheerfully mentioned its incomprehensibility. The point of the mystery genre is to create narratives that are not a mystery any longer at the end, I insisted. The Big Sleep was breaking these rules and what was worse everyone seemed to admire that as much as anything else about it.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

"The Jigsaw Man" (1967)

Larry Niven is most famous now for his Ringworld series of novels, the first of which came in 1970. In 1967, when Harlan Elllison approached him to contribute to Dangerous Visions, Niven was still a bit of a novice. "The Jigsaw Man" is based on the advances of organ transplants, taken to the point where they promise virtually eternal life for recipients wealthy enough to afford them. Then some corrupt individual in government somewhere, at some time, realizes that death-row prisoners would make ideal organ donors. "Organleggers" is the term Niven coins for people in the illicit business that develops. It is taken to absurd extremes. My skepticism is less about a society that would devolve to such a depraved state (after all, look at our president, along with the prospect of two sex criminals on the Supreme Court) and more about a writer who thinks certain specific things are plausible. I'm never going to argue against the perversities of people acting en masse in large groups. But Niven undermines the idea by imagining such an eccentric extreme, focusing narrowly on a ridiculous legal system loophole. In the end we see people getting the death penalty for things like multiple traffic infractions. I can go along with people reduced to using others this way—it's easy enough to live with ongoing intentional death, after all, thinking of the death penalty and continuous war. And the promise of eternal life for any victims who might be innocent ("let God sort them out") can help get you over the hump of genocide. But if you're down to misdemeanors as your rationale your society already has the kinds of problems that should be tearing it to shreds. Consider the Holocaust, and remember that German Nazis went to extraordinary lengths to hide what they were doing. The scale of atrocity in this story is arguably way beyond that, let alone Brett Kavanaugh. At the same time the story is absolutely silent on issues like race and class—presumably this is a future that has evolved beyond such things, though that would make these abuses of a death penalty that much more unlikely. It is thus missing a big piece of the most likely ways that something like systematic organ harvesting of humans would go down. (Somehow I was not surprised when I checked into Niven's biography to find he's a long-time conservative and was an adviser to Ronald Reagan on the "star wars" antimissile initiative.) I totally buy the idea of organ transplants developing a black market where all bets are off for what people actually do (see also the urban legend about waking up in a bathtub in Mexico with a huge wound in your side). As dangerous visions go, that's not bad. It's just hard to believe it would look anything like the death penalty for too many speeding tickets.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Complicated Fun (2017)

This nicely done oral history of the Minneapolis (and St. Paul) pop / punk / hardcore / alternative music scene really brought me back. I was only on the fringes for most of the '70s, even though a few of the bands breaking out of it included people I knew and was friendly with. As I learned here, a tremendous amount happened before I finally circled back in about 1979. It sounds like such great times, with the Suicide Commandos and Flamingo ruling the Longhorn nightclub that gave birth to so much of it. The Suburbs, the Wallets, NNB, the Hypstrz, and Curtiss A were not far behind, and it's arguable all that paved the way for Husker Du and the Replacements in the '80s. Cyn Collins has done a great job of figuring out who to talk to, and then of getting them to talk. Conspicuous in his absence is Prince, who was a respected but distant figure in all this. It was probably wise. The worlds of Prince and the axis of the Longhorn, Oar Folkjokeopus record store, and Twin/Tone indie label were always separate and distinct. The scope of Prince's talent quickly put him in another class entirely, with Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and the world. The great pleasure of this oral history, as with most oral histories, is the mix of distinctive voices. It's full of great stories of things happening by chance, things going wrong, and things you almost can't imagine. It's best on the Suicide Commandos, Suburbs, and NNB, but that might be because I knew some of them and liked those bands best. It scrubs out a lot of ugly details—petty squabbles that became long-term fractures—which again is wise. Why raise old ghosts? By the '80s that's a little tougher to do because bands had ambitions and expectations by then that didn't always bear out, and it's harder to gloss over some ill feelings that are perhaps still operative. Nothing is heard from any of the principals of Husker Du or the Replacements, who have had their own biographies and memoirs in recent years, and there aren't as many stories about them here in general. I wished for a little more there but I know it is adequately documented elsewhere. But the period of 1974 to 1979—a New York Dolls performance at the Minnesota State Fair in 1974 is given as the figurative ground zero—has certainly been underrepresented until now. Complicated Fun is detailed, informative, always fun, and fleshes out the story of Twin Cities music in key ways. Essential, certainly if you grew up there at the time.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Time Bomb (2017)

I don't keep careful track of such things, but surely the 39 years that passed between the first album by the Suicide Commandos and this second one must be some statistical record. Even Paul McCartney and Santana came up short of 30 years between top 10 hits ("Spies Like Us" and "FourFive Seconds" for the one and "Black Magic Woman" and "Smooth" for the other). At this point I know it's mandatory to mention whether it was worth the wait, but as far as I'm concerned, like the 2015 This Is the Sonics, I'm just happy they did it—"rage against the dying of the light," you know. The fact that Time Bomb is a pretty good album is a bonus. The Suicide Commandos, the Minneapolis mid-'70s punk-rock standard-bearers (accept no substitutes), were matched in 1978 with Cleveland's finest, Pere Ubu, on the Mercury subsidiary label Blank (not to be confused with Glenn Danzig's original Misfits project). That first Commandos album, Make a Record, was released simultaneously with Pere Ubu's first, The Modern Dance. Pere Ubu went on to the more illustrious career, and the truth is in 1978 the Commandos were close to calling it quits for almost two decades. Make a Record was a pretty good album too—packed with great, classic songs from their set list—but it was unfortunately dogged by a poor recording. That problem has certainly been addressed on Time Bomb, which is as explosive as the title suggests, crackling with energy, power, and clarity. A more nebulous problem has also been fixed: the three principals—drummer Dave Ahl, bassist Steve Almaas, and guitarist Chris Osgood—seem to like each other more than they did in 1978. The humor is still intact too, based on misspent youth watching trashy movies and playing Monkees records, and they generally rock the house with authority all night from track to track.

If the album consists mostly of solo songwriting credits, the attack of the band is as sharp as ever, updated to beyond middle age, for a seamless batch that's nice to play a lot. And there are a couple of formal collaborations, including one of the best songs here, "If I Can't Make You Love Me," with a monster riff straight from the '70s (is that Bad Company? Thin Lizzy? Aerosmith? I know I should know it) and garbled adolescent sentiments ("you're an idiot, shitty-it, itty-bitty fitty-it," innit?). All my favorites have big riffs and hark to classic-rock or even, dare I say it, boogie. If I had to pick a single favorite it would probably be Osgood's "Pool Palace Cigar," a devil's riff by way of ZZ Top paired with a narrative about traveling through small towns trying to act cool and getting drunk—perfect. His "Boogie's Coldest Acre" is another good one, complete with a classic Osgood riff. This time the boogie mainly exists in the title. The song appears to be about a dangerous situation that needs to be defused. It comes in versions with and without swearing—"put that thing down" versus "put that fucking thing down"—and for some reason (maybe because I'm 39 years older now too) I like the one without swearing more. "Cocktail Shaker" is by Ahl and works more swampy boogie rhythms, with a sinuous guitar line and a way of moving, stopping, and starting that is propulsive. "Depth charge rock" I wrote in a note. All together: "Shake!" Ahl likes his trash culture and Osgood tended to favor the story song, whereas Almaas (full disclosure, a high school friend) has long seemed more rooted in the Buddy Holly / Beatles / Byrds schools of country-inflected pop. A few of his songs here—notably "Try Again," "For Such a Mean Time" (Byrds strained through Cyril Jordan Flamin' Groovies), and "The Wrong Time"—tend to be the ones that make me happiest coming back to the album regularly. His "When I Do It, It's OK" comes out of the same high-velocity kick as the Beatles' "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and other '50s covers. Time Bomb: Play loud. All of it.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Notorious (1946)

USA, 101 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Ben Hecht, Alfred Hitchcock, John Taintor Foote, Clifford Odets
Photography: Ted Tetzlaff
Music: Roy Webb
Editor: Theron Warth
Cast: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, Leopoldine Konstantin, Reinhold Schunzel, Ivan Triesault, E.A. Krumschmidt

I count Notorious as one of director and cowriter Alfred Hitchcock's best, though time has marred it some for rancid attitudes. It's another movie from 1946 that is not entirely sure World War II is over, and still measuring the effects. It's a spy story but full of Hitchcock's ingenious tricks, with a nicely matched pair of glamorous performances in Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman, the disgraced daughter of a German-American Nazi given a chance to redeem herself on an undercover assignment—she is this movie's alarming drunk—and Cary Grant as Devlin, her handler. They are on the track of Nazis who are hiding out in South America and unnaturally fascinated with uranium. (As a matter of historical interest, the American CIA did not exist until 1948, when it was created under the direction of former Nazis by President Truman.)

But this movie and the US spy agency in it are from 1946, and if things are murky in terms of the ongoing perceived threat from German Nazis, they are perfectly clear in terms of doing right things. Alicia Huberman drinks like a fish and pretends to be cynical about everything, but secret recordings reveal that she despised her father's Nazi sympathies and treasonous actions and she actually loves America—loves it fiercely. Devlin shows up shortly after her father is found guilty and sentenced to prison, at the beginning of the picture, and recruits her for the assignment. At first all they know is that it is in Rio de Janeiro. While they wait for the specific details, of course they have a beautiful romance. But then comes the assignment.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

"Faith of Our Fathers" (1967)

Philip K. Dick's contribution to Dangerous Visions went on to get a nomination for a Hugo Award, more bounty for the reputation of Harlan Ellison's collection. There is also more interesting material here to speculate on the dynamics between Ellison and these writers. We have already seen Ellison request a specific story from Robert Bloch and then write his own version of it. For this one Ellison asked Dick to write it "about, and under the influence of (if possible) LSD." I can only wonder what Dick thought. I don't know his biography or writing habits well enough to even guess. In 1967 Dick was beginning to come into his own publicly yet with much of his work done. What he came up with is typical of his inversions. In this story, everyone is continually high on a mild hallucinogen. It's in the drinking water, administered by Communists who have come to worldwide power. China appears to have won the Cold War. TVs in the home monitor activity—that old schizophrenic chestnut—and citizens are required to be present in front of the screens with their eyes open for political speeches. The illicit drug that commands prices on the black market is phenothiazine, which counteracts hallucinogens. (Phenothiazine is "highly bioactive," it says in Wikipedia, and is the source of thorazine.) Political resistance forces spread the drug to enable people to experience actual reality. However, when it is used during the mandatory televised speeches something strange seems to be happening. The mysterious leader of the world government, known as the Absolute Benefactor, takes on many different appearances according to the phenothiazine users. Of course, someone from the government is out there classifying them (it wouldn't be a Dick story without such natural bureaucrats): the Clanker (a hideous machine), the Gulper (a hideous whale), the Bird, the Climbing Tube, etc. So the story is about solving these various mysteries, including the nature of reality and hallucination, and it also roams into inspired areas of religion. Dick is obviously trying harder here—everyone is, under Ellison's wheedling and pushing—and this story ends up in some pretty amazing places. It's a classic Dick story and maybe one of his best. It's also one for the tally of stories in this collection that rise to the level of dangerous, though it is dangerous in a way that is hard to describe exactly. Better to read it. Or consider this, from Dick's afterword, quoting a 9th-century Irish theologian and poet in the court of Charles the Bold named John Scotus Erigena (Wikipedia corroborates he is real): "We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being." A mic drop if ever there was one. It might actually be the most dangerous (religious) line in the whole book.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, September 17, 2018

Nico, 1988 (2017)

Nico, 1988 suffers from the usual limitations of biopics—a certain inevitable self-satisfaction, and if you know anything about the subject you already know where it's all headed. But credit where due: director and screenwriter Susanna Nicchiarelli has stitched together a lot of effective elements, focusing on the end of the line for Nico (born Christa Paffgen), who died in 1988. Trine Dyrholm delivers a convincing and affecting Nico, there's some nice support from John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory in Gregory's Girl) and Karina Fernandez (Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year), and the band—an Italian post-rock outfit called Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo—is much better than the treatment Nico is shown giving them. Indeed, it is perhaps better than the actual thing, in the way biopics exaggerate and heighten for effect. I seem to know a lot of people who saw Nico on her endless tour in the '80s and the reports are never good, telling tales of a disgruntled middle-aged heroin addict making music with strange uneven powers who couldn't accept that her moment came and went when she played a tambourine and sang with the Velvet Underground (there's a great moment here when someone seems to have her confused with Marianne Faithfull or Anita Pallenberg).  My turn was at Duffy's in Minneapolis in something like 1982. She was pumping at a harmonium on her own while people catcalled for songs they had to know she couldn't do, like "Heroin." That show did not last long, cut off when she left the stage abruptly, angry about something. I think we got five songs. In this movie, the shows are short too. But the high point of the picture is one of them, a mysterious show in Prague in 1986. It's cut short by the appearance of Soviet Czechoslovakian police to hassle the promoter. Nico and at least one other member of the band are suffering withdrawal symptoms because they could not bring heroin across the border and haven't been able to find any there. Nico takes to the stage shaky and coated in a thin film of sweat. They play one song, "My Heart Is Empty," before they have to flee the hall altogether. It is an amazing, roaring performance—I wish I could look at it over and over again tonight. (It has not yet made it to YouTube, but there's a snippet.) Otherwise, Nico, 1988 explores Nico's experience in Berlin as a girl at the end of World War II for general purposes of psychological motivation, and does a bit of dancing around with her white supremacist ways, though not enough. There's also some stuff about her son and her death in 1988, at 49. I wish there had been more of that band.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Gospel According to the Son (1997)

There's a significant temptation here to make fun of Norman Mailer for choosing to tell the Jesus story in the first person—colossal ego, overweening self-aggrandizement, etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, Satan is the most vivid and interesting character in the whole slender thing, which is about the size of a book of the Bible. He is more interesting than Jesus, God, and all the disciples. And Joseph and Mary too. I have to admit Mailer is probably better than anyone else who ever told this story on Jesus' carpentry, which after all is what he spent most of his life doing. Curiouser and curiouser. Between Ancient Evenings and this it's apparent Mailer had a reasonably informed interest in the ancient world. He also had some batty and/or stimulating ideas about good and evil, and God and Satan, which he interjected into much of what he wrote willy-nilly along the way. The Gospel According to the Son is almost pure willy and nilly. It's brief and easy to read—you'll recognize most of the story if you ever went to Sunday school—but as with Ancient Evenings I'm not sure why it exists. As it turns out, Mailer's Jesus is a lot like Mailer, an improv artist on a mission he doesn't understand himself, though his faith is strong. This version includes the miracles—water into wine, fishes and loaves, walking on the water, etc.—so it's one of "those" gospels. This Jesus is aware of and has quarrels with the few gospel writers who made it into the New Testament (namely, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). According to this Jesus they all got parts of the story way wrong. Jesus' feelings toward them sound like an aggrieved novelist pouting about bad reviews. That's pretty funny, but I'm not sure Mailer intended any of this to be funny. There's an air of sanctimony and self-seriousness to it too (which is also funny, so he seems to be having it both ways a lot with this one). This Jesus is telling the story from centuries beyond the grave (such as it is)—in the 20th century, to put a date on it. This Jesus is no hippie, nor warrior for the Second Amendment. He's steely in some ways, unfocused and wishy-washy in others. Come to think of it, in our culture it might actually make sense for everyone to write their own gospel, except that would require mandatory Sunday school in every child's life and that's probably going too far. The title is wrong, of course. This is the gospel according to Mailer, albeit told from the point of view of Jesus. So it's Norman Mailer wearing a Jesus mask, if you can imagine. Still, as long as something as fundamental as our system of counting time still revolves around Jesus, we probably need new gospels like this all the time. So I take it back about not knowing why it exists. In fact, it's amazing to me that there aren't more of these.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 14, 2018

My Darling Clementine (1946)

USA, 97 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: Samuel G. Engel, Winston Miller, Sam Hellman, Stuart N. Lake
Photography: Joseph MacDonald
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, Linda Darnell, Cathy Downs, Ward Bond, Tim Holt, Alan Mowbray, John Ireland, Jane Darwell

By force of will, director John Ford turned Monument Valley into the very image of pioneer America, but really it's practically the harshest environment most of them ever could have faced, let alone tried to settle. Unlike the Great Plains which were mistaken for the "Great American Desert" until well beyond the Civil War, Monument Valley, occupying the Arizona and Utah border regions, is really desert land—perhaps not as intense as Death Valley, but desert: dry, hot, forbidding, mostly barren, with sand and rocks and ancient outcroppings left over from when it was an inland sea. Plus skilled and hostile natives. Into this hell Ford regularly sent his pilgrims, who faithfully sing "Shall We Gather at the River" every chance they get, which isn't that often, only maybe once per movie, because they are otherwise busy trying to survive by their wits and their unrelenting Puritan work ethic.

I suspect the reason My Darling Clementine is my favorite John Ford picture is because it is so much more obviously made-up fictional legend instead of the manly midcentury hard reality Ford more often essays. The Wyatt Earp story and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral are concoctions mostly dreamed up by Earp himself after he moved to Hollywood in the 20th century. There's some historical veracity to pull out of this movie if you are so inclined—Doc Holliday really had tuberculosis, for example—but when you get into the details of the main events it was actually a lot of grubbing around and low behavior. The shootout, such as it was, didn't even happen at the O.K. Corral. Mostly the story as we understand it now, from this movie and many others based on Stuart N. Lake's version, more properly belongs with tales of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan, Tinker Bell and Peter Pan—stories that comfort and encourage us to be our best.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

"The Man Who Went to the Moon—Twice" (1967)

Howard Rodman, who died in 1985, wrote screenplays for TV and movies. His best-known work includes Route 66, Naked City, Coogan's Bluff, and Charley Varrick. Harlan Ellison's introduction to the story discusses Ellison's intention to cast the net wide for this anthology, looking to writers outside of science fiction. Some names he mentions here that didn't make it in include Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs, and Terry Southern. It's an interesting idea, as Rodman's odd story shows. Get outside of science fiction and you're liable to find something unexpected for science fiction. Certainly that's the case here, though it's not entirely unprecedented—Ray Bradbury, for one, covered territory like this. Our hero, who bears the strange name of Marshall Kiss, ends up in a runaway hot-air balloon at the age of 9. He says the balloon took him to the moon. His story is covered in local papers—it's an obvious kid's confabulation, but all the adults go along with it for human interest newspaper stories, as adults will (see also Santa Claus). Many years later, nearing the age of 90, Kiss is a lonely old man who has outlived his family and friends. To get attention, he makes up a story about going to the moon. But no one is interested because no one goes to the moon anymore. They're all going to Mars now. In his afterword, Rodman says his focus is on the tremendous amount of change in the world that people can see now in a single lifetime. It's a reasonably interesting point but a bit obvious, as there are approximately 7 billion people now living it out, and not like this. What I liked about the story more was seeing the visual focus and narrative rhythms of a screenwriter. For example, when Rodman describes the boy Kiss recounting his story for reporters, neighbors, and others, he adds this sentence: "A horse poked his head through the kitchen window, and a chicken hopped in and hid under the stove." Then, after the boy finishes telling the story, which naturally is full of charming and nostalgic detail: "The horse took his head out the window and went back to cropping grass in the yard. The hen hopped out the door again, leaving an egg behind under the stove." These animals remind me of Green Acres and other '60s television and give some idea of how this story works (or doesn't, as the case may be). It's not my idea of science fiction, but I like the hodgepodge White Album feel this story brings to the larger collection.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Top 40

1. Serebro, "Пройдет" (3:34)
2. John Prine, "Summer's End" (3:29)
3. Dirty Disco feat. Celeda, "To the Dancefloor" (7:26)
4. Yuno, "No Going Back" (3:28)
5. U.S. Girls, "Pearly Gates" (4:02)
6. Anna von Hausswolff, "The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra" (6:08)
7. Gwenno, "Tir Ha Mor" (4:10)
8. Portugal. The Man, "Live in the Moment" (4:06)
9. Ashley Monroe, "Hands on You" (3:52)
10. XXXTENTACION, "Sad!" (2:46)
11. The Weeknd, "Call Out My Name" (3:48)
12. Carrie Underwood, "Cry Pretty" (4:06)
13. Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa, "One Kiss" (3:35)
14. Louisa Johnson, "Yes" (2:55)
15. Cardi B, "Be Careful" (3:30)
16. Javiera Mena, "Intuicion" (3:54)
17. Perfume, "Mugenmirai" (3:43)
18. Bhad Bhabie feat. Lil Yachty, "Gucci Flip Flops" (2:30)
19. Childish Gambino, "This Is America" (3:45)
20. Luis Damora, "L.A. Sunrise (Mendo & Danny Serrano Remix)" (7:35)
21. Seinabo Sey, "I Owe You Nothing" (2.59)
22. Goldberg Sisters, "Dear Mr. Nilsson" (3:37)
23. Blacktones, "The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead)" (6:09)
24. Nicki Minaj, "Chun-Li" (3:11)
25. Aya Nakamura, "Djadja" (2:50)
26. Troye Sivan, "Bloom" (3:42)
27. Aastha Gill, "Buzz" (3:13)
28. Ella Mai, "Boo'd Up" (4:16)
29. Khalid feat. Ty Dolla $ign & 6lack, "OTW" (4:23)
30. Nyssa, "Cowboy" (4:09)
31. Cowboy Rhythmbox, "Tanz Exotique (Red Axes Remix)" (7:22)
32. Years & Years, "If You're Over Me" (3:09)
33. Little Boots, "Eros" (4:20)
34. Christine & the Queens feat. Dam-Funk, "Girlfriend" (3:21)
35. Weezer, "Africa" (3:58)
36. Gorillaz, "Lake Zurich" (4:13)
37. SHINee, "From Now On" (4:44)
38. Becky G & Natti Natasha, "Sin Pijama" (3:08)
39. BlocBoy JB feat. Drake, "Look Alive" (3:01)
40. Tyga, "Taste" (3:53)

(thanx: Billboard, The Singles Jukebox [aggregates of 6.0+], Skip D. Expense, The Stranger, Chris Molanphy at random on Facebook, various happenstance, and once in a while the radio)

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Better Living Through Criticism (2016)

A.O. Scott presently labors at the New York Times as a film critic, where he has worked since 2000. I liked his attempt here to define and defend the role of critics, a vocation (or avocation) that has existed for centuries—millennia—but always under a vague cloud of illegitimacy and forever on the verge of ending abruptly. Nazi types are one problem ("When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver," "Journalism is the enemy of the people"). Capitalism more generally doesn't like the critical enterprise much either. Newspapers and magazines carried the burden for a century or two but they were always folding and now the whole industry looks sketchy. Lately it's been the internet and digital and social media as a more likely source, but the amateurism there also makes it a threat to professionalism. I do share Scott's mistrust of IMDb and Amazon reviewers, bloggers, and other amateurs more or less giving away their work, even though I am precisely part of the problem there. But what do you do? We need the eggs, as the old joke has it. ("My brother thinks he's a chicken." ... "Thinks he's a chicken! Why don't you take him to a doctor?" h/t Woody Allen.) At any rate, one of the hardest parts for everyone is defining critics and criticism, which Scott gives a go. You can argue he fails at defining it precisely, but he certainly draws a large circle around everything it might be. His sources are fun to follow as he reaches back for Aristophanes, Samuel Johnson, Susan Sontag, Yvor Winters, and any number of formidable figures of the past who have engaged his questions. He even includes Socrates-style dialogues with himself in short intervening chapters. He looks for the popular image of critics in intriguing places, such as the movies All About Eve and Ratatouille. He boldly claims criticism as a creative endeavor coequal with all other arts. He suggests that art itself is a kind of critique of life, with the artist in the reviewer's position. Artist and critic both use their respective materials toward the ends of judgment, or discernment, and sharing experience. In spite of his wit and light touch, Scott seemed a little gloomy to me about the prospects for the 21st century. He makes a strong argument that as long as there has been print there have been critics. In fact, in some ways it's depressing how much criticism there is and always has been. Today's bloggers are yesteryear's ink-stained wretches writing bad reviews of Moby-Dick. But that's not entirely fair. All critics miss obvious things. Just a few weeks ago I was remembering the animus Rolling Stone used to have for Led Zeppelin. And, in fact, one of Scott's best sections here is called "How to Be Wrong," addressing the inevitability and perhaps even the necessity for error, in assessing the ongoing competitions between innovation and convention, the latest shiny new thing versus musty old reliables. Scott observes the widespread exasperation with critics and criticism—the truth is most critics feel that way about them too. But he knows well the siren call of it, that urge to share a profound experience with others, which often is legitimated by encountering criticism for the first time. Scott does a nice job of outlining the situation, both from the outside and the inside, and he makes a good case for the various utilities of criticism too.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Anti (2016)

Superstar Rihanna's eighth studio album is one more brick in a wall of hits for a career dating back to 2005. The album spawned four singles (three top 10s in the US, including the #1 "Work"), went triple-platinum and counting, and maintained Rihanna's status within the ranks of artists whose fans will follow them across the bewildering field of streaming services. But even so she remains an unknown quantity to me and I've had a hard time getting a bead on the 50-minute 16-track whole of this album. I suspect that's related to the fact that there are literally dozens of songwriters and producers represented here, each with their individualized baggage of musical influence. But even in spite of the unruly range the album is full of surprise pleasures, on shuffle, in mixes, and even straight through as given. I should say it's another album I came to by way of singles—it's wonderful what streaming services have done for organized listening nowadays, though I worry how problematic they are for artists. "Work" seemed to be aimed at and speaking for people in monotonous jobs, which might account for its popularity, but mostly it sounded monotonous to me, except where it turns into a Drake track. Two other singles, "Needed Me" and "Kiss It Better" (released on the same day), work a little better, more as mood pieces with sound effects. "Kiss It Better" notably benefits from an appearance by Extreme guitar player Nuno Bettencourt. But "Love on the Brain" was ultimately the big winner for me on Anti. I see it described as doo-wop quite often but if anything it reminds me of the doo-wop that turned into what Motown recorded in the early '60s—a slower, smokier Marvelettes, to put a fine point on it. But the Marvelettes, Rihanna, and doo-wop would make an interesting jumble on a Venn diagram, so all good. In sequencing, it's also the best part of the album, followed by "Higher," which takes it down the road in a slightly drunken direction (Rihanna was reportedly sipping whiskey for the song's session). Then the next song, "Close to You," also fits, though moving more in the directions of lounge. "Goodnight Gotham" returns to the downtempo precincts that more frequently populate the songs in this set. Some other good ones here include "Desperado," an admirable contribution to the "desperado" shelf of rock 'n' roll and its kin. "Same Ol' Mistakes" is by far the longest at 6:37, occasionally ambling and losing it way but its throbbing bass and bruised air are often lovely. It's probably best to keep focus on Anti at the level of individual songs. I've listened to it a dozen times or more, still don't have much sense of it as a whole album, and may never.

Friday, September 07, 2018

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

USA, 170 minutes
Director: William Wyler
Writers: Robert E. Sherwood, MacKinlay Kantor
Photography: Gregg Toland
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Cast: Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Harold Russell, Cathy O'Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Gladys George, Roman Bohnen, Ray Collins, Ray Teal, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Gene Krupa, Michael Hall

At nearly three hours and with a large and impressive ensemble cast and three or more narrative threads intertwining and going simultaneously, The Best Years of Our Lives is ambitious, setting out to make a monumentally large statement in real time about the fallout and aftereffects of the end of World War II on the American home front. It might be the best American movie about World War II. It's set in a fictional medium-sized city named Boone City, which suggests the near-Midwest or border South region, Kentucky, Ohio, or Tennessee. But really it is Anytown. And the movie starts within months or weeks of the war's end, as three servicemen make their ways home: airman Fred Derry (Dana Andrews, one of the most familiar faces in '40s movies), disabled sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and middle-aged soldier Al Stephenson (Fredric March).

Not one of them is owner of a neat and tidy life. Fred is in a quickie wartime marriage fast going bad, Homer, whose hands were lost in the war and replaced by hooks, struggles with his disability, and Al is the most confusing character of all. He's a swank banker, a family man married 20 years with two nearly grown children. But he finds his identity more in his status as an army sergeant than in his big comfortable life, which he gave up to fight. He's also an alarming drunk by today's standards, and probably even then—regularly humiliating himself in what often appear to be blackout episodes. It gets even messier when the women are brought in. In short order Fred falls for Al's daughter Peggy (a brilliant Teresa Wright), Homer can't believe his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) still wants to marry him so he avoids her, leaving her hanging, and Al drinks at every opportunity, maundering about soldierly camaraderie. His long-suffering wife Milly (a perfectly cast Myrna Loy) seems to have faith he will dry out on his own sooner or later. Maybe most amazing, The Best Years of Our Lives is a feel-good movie that actually makes you feel good.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

"The Night That All Time Broke Out" (1967)

Brian W. Aldiss's story is almost more interesting for the circumstances of its appearance here. Harlan Ellison's introduction is weirdly restrained and formal and once again he turns part of it over to the story author, which Aldiss uses to brag about how he's managed to make a living as a science fiction writer, a theme that continues in his afterword. It's true that Aldiss was a key figure in the British and American New Wave of science fiction in the '60s and '70s, with Norman Spinrad, Roger Zelazny, Ellison himself, and others, and also that he wrote the story on which Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg based the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence. But this story has more flaws than good points. In the future, time itself has been found to exist in pockets underground—something like natural gas. As a product it is a utility, consumed like water or electricity routed directly into homes somehow. The effect is to return one to a happier time in the past—a day or two earlier or a month or more depending on the dose, which is carefully rationed. Until, that is, [see title]. Aldiss explains that death does not result from an overdose, but rather the user is hurtled back through the generations, men following the father's line and women the mother's. The story is about what happens when the system breaks down in an accident and too much time floods it. People begin to lose memory and understanding of technology. The main problem distracting me here was the ephemeral make-believe nature of time. Descriptions are never really attempted, which might be wise, but time is flooding everything yet there is no sense of what it is like to be there as it happens. It's all just kooky, and then when people start using Elizabethan and older English that's our clue for the severity. In the end they may have even lost language altogether. However, we already know these effects wear off eventually. How bad can it be? If the planet is now swamped with time, well, yeah, that sounds like a problem. But what does it look like? What does it feel like? Aldiss writes, "As they ran out into the darkness, high above them towered the great invisible plume of the time gusher, still blowing, blowing its doom about the world." It doesn't exactly paint the picture.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, September 03, 2018

Eighth Grade (2018)

Stand-up comic and actor Bo Burnham's first feature as director and screenwriter appears to be taking a notable risk in the #MeToo era, with a grown man making a movie about an 8th-grade girl's coming of age, graduating from middle school to high school. But Eighth Grade does more things right than wrong—it's warm, sharply observed, and often very funny. Though it's not afraid to hit the booming musical cues hard as it paints the picture of its main character, it is actually a quiet movie, eschewing all excesses but one that we've come to expect from typical teen fare. That one is cringing awkwardness—of a teen girl in the middle of growing up, of her many friends who are confused, shallow, and foolish, and of her helicopter single dad, forever hovering and trying not to do or say the wrong thing again. The one thing Eighth Grade has that is absolutely surefire is Elsie Fisher as the introverted Kayla, "the coolest girl in the world" (her words, in notes she addresses to herself). Kayla has acne, she's slightly overweight, and she never stands up straight, but she is authentic and winning. I thought Fisher, born in 2003, embodied the poise and insecurities of middle schoolers well and played the role naturally, with a lack of self-consciousness. Times being what they are, Kayla lives most of her life online. Her phone is her constant companion and escape even when she's with others. She also has her own YouTube channel where she offers advice to viewers—things like, be yourself, put yourself out there, act confident. It's these videos where Kayla's aspirations and the inarticulate speech of her heart swell into fullest and most tender life. She knows she is considered one of the quiet girls in school, but she also knows under that there is a vibrant, lively, talkative, charming girl becoming a woman, who anyone would be sure to find totally awesome and cool and love madly. It just hasn't happened yet, so she does things like make a to-do list about getting friends and then choosing a best friend from among them. Eighth Grade does traffic at will in teen movie stereotypes—there are nerds and mean girls here in full costume, and maybe some jocks away off in the distance. It even reaches back to '60s sitcoms for the old trope of the bachelor father and the missing mother (My Three Sons, Andy Griffith, Family Affair)—per the usual, we learn very little about the missing mother except she isn't there. But Kayla is all the way there, engaging with her life, reaching out through her phone, trying to understand the madness, and making this movie work.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

The Way of All Flesh (1873-1884)

I really enjoyed Samuel Butler's posthumously published fictional account of his life, and if it took the fraud of landing on the Modern Library list of greatest 20th-century novels to get me there I guess that's OK. As influential as it might have been for 20th-century youths, however, it was written in the 19th century and it's about the 19th century. I know little else of Butler. I had him confused with Samuel Johnson and thought be belonged  more to the 18th century or something. "The way of all flesh" has a wonderful ring to it, riffing on the biblical line "the way of all the earth." "The way of all flesh" came to English by way of idiomatic Danish and German, but it feels Shakespearean and is now mostly associated with Butler. The Way of All Flesh is a big story of an arguably small man, spanning four generations and proceeding at a stately pace, setting out each generation by turn even as it gradually, almost imperceptibly, zooms in on our hero, Ernest Pontifex. We don't even see him in the first third of this novel. The story, which spends much of its time exploding Victorian hypocrisy in calculated assaults, is strikingly modern. In many ways it's about an individual identity, socially defined, in conflict with its environment. Butler was a lifelong bachelor and if he wasn't gay (a debated point) he certainly understood being an outsider. Ernest comes from a long line of clergy and that is the career expected of him. But Ernest is reflexively individual, a kind of intellectual gadfly contrarian by today's lights. The description of Ernest's treatment by his abusive father is less notable for the physical aspect, simply described as regular beatings, and much more for the detailed emotional stresses inflicted, aided and abetted by his mother. Today more and more we call it gaslighting. Nothing excuses such treatment, but Ernest's insistence on taking possession of his own destiny, with all the inevitable mistakes that entails, was obviously hard for everyone to deal with. In fact, it's the willful seizing of his own destiny that is likely more shocking and influential than his talent, which is modest. Ernest Pontifex is a genuine oddball, an intellectual true to his own self-determined principles. He is described late in this story as a "one book man," which would apply equally to Butler, author of the satirical utopia novel Erewhon and translator of Homer. Ironically, perhaps, Butler is still a one book man, but that book since his death has turned out to be this one, published according to his direction after his death, which came in 1902. The Way of All Flesh was important to A.A. Milne and George Orwell, among others. I had an idea while I was reading that it might have made an impression on James Joyce, who was also shaped by similarly pervasive church forces. Different churches, different cultures, so maybe not. The Way of All Flesh has really wonderful storytelling and a great story to tell. Ernest is strange and lovable in his perverse choices. Overton—Ernest's godfather and the ostensible author of this narrative—frequently refers to him as "my hero," which at first I took to mean the way he expressed "the hero of this story." But he uses it so often I got the impression he might have meant that Ernest was indeed a personal hero. He is for me too now I know his story.

In case it's not at the library.