Sunday, December 30, 2018

Up From Slavery (1901)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 28, 2018

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

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

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

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

Thursday, December 27, 2018

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

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

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, December 23, 2018

To the Lighthouse (1927)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

"Ersatz" (1967)

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

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, December 17, 2018

Wildlife (2018)

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

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Spooky Art (2003)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Intolerance (1916)

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

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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2018

"What Happened to Auguste Clarot?" (1967)

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

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Top 40

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

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

Monday, December 10, 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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

Sunday, December 09, 2018

South and West (2017)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Brief Encounter (1945)

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

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

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

Thursday, December 06, 2018

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

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

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Against Everything (2016)

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

In case it's not at the library.