Sunday, August 25, 2019

"The Most Dangerous Game" (1924)

I recall Richard Connell's chestnut as being taught in high school. I wonder if that wasn't how the Zodiac serial killer was exposed to it, who made oblique references to it in one letter to Bay Area newspapers. Operating just behind the Zodiac in the '70s and '80s, in Alaska, was Robert Hansen, who kidnapped women, raped them, flew them to remote wilderness areas, and hunted them. "The Most Dangerous Game," alas quaint now at best after such true-crime episodes, is further weakened by being full of absurd convenience. A man falls off a yacht in the Caribbean and swims "the blood-warm water" to the nearest island. His name is Sanger Rainsford and he happens to be a big-game hunter. He also happens to be an author. The owner of the island happens to know his work. That owner is General Zaroff, a Czarist loyalist, who I imagine having a scar on the side of his face like Fearless Leader from Bullwinkle. It's a reasonably good idea, this horror of humans formally hunting one another (what next, cannibalism?!), but it's a little too impressed with its awesomeness to work out the details and make it credible. It's still fun to read as a sort of adventure story with a tang of existential dread. It's mostly setup and then the last third is a lot of chasing around the jungle making booby traps and/or avoiding them. It reads like a story that is still a little shell-shocked from the Great War. Indeed, our hero, besides being a big-game hunter and author, also happens to be a veteran of that war. His experience quickly digging trenches comes in handy. The story is haunted by human brutality even as it seems to have little idea how bad it can get. I appreciate the dark spirit but by the time I was reading it in high school movies like Night of the Living Dead and Last House on the Left were more the latest word in human brutality. Interesting that those movies are likely not yet taught in high school, and this Connell story might still be, but the reasons are obvious and understandable. An interesting curiosity but not that much to see here, folks.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Lady Eve (1941)

USA, 94 minutes
Director: Preston Sturges
Writers: Monckton Hoffe, Preston Sturges
Photography: Victor Milner
Music: Phil Boutelje, Charles Bradshaw, Gil Grau, Sigmund Krumgold, John Leipold, Leo Shuken
Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, William Demarest, Eugene Pallette, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, Martha O'Driscoll, Janet Beecher, Robert Greig, Luis Alberni, Jimmy Conlin

In many ways The Lady Eve comes on as a romantic comedy, with two big and beautiful stars in Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. But the instincts of director and cowriter Preston Sturges steer the movie more toward screwball and beyond. We may think of 1941 as a war year, but the Pearl Harbor attack did not occur until the end of the year. And the movies, in the isolationist meantime, were prolific and often seemed more intent on tearing up and rewriting templates. The Lady Eve is a romantic comedy in the same way Hellzapoppin'  is a musical and Citizen Kane is an experimental art film and/or biopic. More than anything, I suppose, The Lady Eve is a Sturges picture, offering up a full orchestra of vaudeville gags, character players, and pratfalls, themselves little symphonies of smashing plates, falling cutlery, and stammered apologies. Sturges never had much sense of cinema formally. But just like he was willing to try anything for a laugh he was also willing to try anything with the technology, as seen in a mirror-driven monologue here. Rampant experimentation appeared to be a regular feature of the movies in 1941. Even a relatively straightforward comedy like the W.C. Fields vehicle Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is full of surrealistic turns.

In the spirit of classic screwballs like My Man Godfrey and Bringing Up Baby, the leads here are as zany as everything else. Stanwyck, who in the first place could do anything, is about at the peak of her powers. Consider her 1941: Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, and You Belong to Me. She's Jean, a conniving con artist and card sharp traveling aboard a passenger ship as the daughter of her mentor, the self-titled Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn, excellent as always). She is self-assurance itself, speaking a mile a minute and flinging off sparks in all directions. "Every Jane in the room is giving him the thermometer," she says in the mirror monologue, sizing up her prey and the competition. Her target is the dweebish and independently wealthy Charles Poncefort Pike (Fonda), a scientist with an interest in snakes who is returning from an exploring expedition in the Amazon. She calls him Hopsie after he tells her it's a family nickname he hates. Working against his already stolid type, Abraham Lincoln Tom Joad Henry Fonda is especially good playing an absent-minded professor harried by a perpetual erection—a notable skill, not often seen in midcentury American movies or done well ever.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sophie's Choice (1979)

It's possible I might have liked Sophie's Choice more in another mood but I wasn't in that mood and so I have these complaints. First, it's an egregious example (or is that a very good example?) of a narrative style I call "peekaboo." In a peekaboo story the storyteller lets you know there's something to know but keeps declining to disclose it even though he (meaning William Styron in this case) has to know it's the reason you're there. So, in a novel that runs to nearly 600 pages, with this title, we do not learn until about the last 50 what Sophie's choice specifically was. We know it is likely horrible, because the setting is Auschwitz during World War II. How could it possibly be good when it involves Nazis? But the first 550 or so pages are spent on weird things: the preoccupations of a budding Southern novelist in postwar New York, a horribly abusive relationship, and other things that seem beside the point. In fairness, Sophie Zawistowska is probably a good portrait of a Holocaust survivor. But I'm not done complaining yet. This peekaboo story is told loop-the-loop fashion—the primary action takes place over five months in 1947 but there are flashbacks all over the place and the main thread is often lost. Which is OK because it's mostly unpleasant. But there you are, still hoping to find out, and soon, what this Sophie's choice thing is. I'm often enchanted with loop-the-loop storytelling (e.g., The Great Gatsby, Frederick Exley's memoir A Fan's Pages, most Philip Roth), but the voice really has to be compelling and the transitions artful and intuitively right. I didn't like this narrator with his Southern literary pretensions. Good grief, his name is "Stingo," and oh, what do you know, he went on to write a novel about Nat Turner (yes, this novel has flash-forwards too, what loop-the-loop story does not?). Frankly, Sophie's boyfriend Nathan should have been abandoned by every one of these characters before page 50. He's an awful person who makes you awful too if you accept his redemption even a little. Maybe it's because he reminded me of someone. Last, on my list of major complaints, is Styron's vocabulary: perdurable, coralline, secreted (can't he see it's one of those distracting self-antonym words, like cleave or oversight?), heliotrope, neurasthenia, viscid, renascence, matutinal, chatelaine, bediademed, unguentary, prothalamic. I really got tired of looking up words that turned out to have perfectly useful, lovely, and well-known synonyms (for example, "matutinal" means "occurring in the morning"). Nor was the level of poetic flight noticeably elevated. I didn't even remember until I'd finished Sophie's Choice that Styron also wrote Lie Down in Darkness, which I read and remember liking very much a long time ago. Somehow I missed even the movie that came of Sophie's Choice, but it's probably just as well. I seriously doubt it's better than this novel and I'm not even sure this novel is that good. Between Nazis and the South, it's a bit much. Thus, finally, my very last little complaint is once again with the weirdly scattershot Modern Library list of the best novels of the 20th century. If Styron belongs on it at all, an arguable point, it should be for Lie Down in Darkness. Or maybe The Confessions of Nat Turner, though my enthusiasm for getting to that one might be on the wane after this.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

"August Heat" (1910)

Because it's convenient for things to have a starting point, and because it makes a good story that way, I'm assigning the beginning of modern horror fiction as we understand it to 1816, when E.T.A. Hoffmann published "The Sand-Man" and when the Shelleys, Mary and Percy Bysshe, gathered in Geneva with Lord Byron and his doctor, John William Polidori, and had a friendly competition to write ghost stories. The result was Frankenstein and "The Vampyre." Nearly a hundred years later, W.F. Harvey's very short story about the dog days of summer depends to a certain degree on familiarity with horror fiction conventions as they had developed. It's more along the lines of a knowing joke, and the punchline is "uncanny." It's not as witty as Saki but has an undertone that dares you to laugh, and then dares you not to laugh. It tells us things that don't make sense as if they do. It captures a little of the insanity that happens when it's still sweltering hot even at night in August. It's not the heat, it's the humidity.

On one of those very hot days an illustrator (who is also the first-person narrator) is seized in the morning with an impulse to sketch a man at trial just as he is sentenced. He thinks the picture is pretty good, if he says so himself. "The feeling that his expression conveyed was not so much one of horror as of utter, absolute collapse." Then the illustrator walks aimlessly for several hours. He finds himself at the shop of a stonemason. On an impulse he enters it. It's the man in his sketch! And he's working on a gravestone. And on that gravestone is the name of the narrator, with his birthdate and today's date (August 20th, 190–),already chiseled in. This work is the result of an impulse on the mason's part. The two don't know one another, have never met, and soon agree it's a strange and dangerous situation. They decide to stay together the rest of that day for mutual safety. Of course this story is short and moves quickly because it's so ridiculously impossible. At the end of the day, between 11 p.m. and midnight, the narrator is recording his account in the mason's workshop while the mason tidies up. The story ends:

The air seems charged with thunder. I am writing this at a shaky table before the open window.
The leg is cracked, and [the mason], who seems a handy man with his tools, is going to mend it as soon as he has finished putting an edge on his chisel.
It is after 11 now. I shall be gone in less than an hour.
But the heat is stifling.
It is enough to send a man mad.

Harvey couldn't resist the broad wink of "I shall be gone in less than an hour," but it is actually hard for me to imagine this complacent scene turning into frenzy and murder within the hour. And maybe it doesn't! We're never told. But that's the idea. The improbability, and the uncertainty, thus keep it more in the realm of merely cerebral, a macabre joke predicated on reader expectations. But it's sparkly and swift and maybe even uncanny if you turn it around in your head enough. It's been done on radio plus in the early '70s DC Comics adapted it for one of their horror titles. Night Gallery should have done it too. That show always did like to make people sweat.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Law & Order, s6 (1995-1996)

Earlier this year the first Law & Order spinoff, Special Victims Unit, was renewed for its 21st season and also broadcast a 457th episode, thus overtaking the 20 seasons and 456 episodes of the original for third place on the list of longest-running TV shows, behind The Simpsons (30/662 and counting) and Gunsmoke (20/535). No doubt producer Dick Wolf ("awhoooo!") is proud and happy to have two titles in that top 5 but I'm less sure we as viewers can count it as a good thing overall. On the other hand, like The Simpsons (and unlike Gunsmoke, Special Victims Unit, or Lassie), Law & Order at least can still stake claim to genuine TV innovation, so there's that.

Yet the one thing readily apparent from the sixth season of Law & Order is a willingness to play it safe and fall back on tried and true strategies of ensemble 'n' episode TV. Even the signature wrinkle of focusing on institutional roles rather than individual characters is starting to feel a little humdrum. The show's original junior detective, Mike Logan (Chris Noth), is suddenly gone, disappeared for an incident briefly shown in the last five minutes of the previous season. He's replaced by Reynaldo Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) and predictably a bunch of episodes track the awkwardness of his jelling with senior detective Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach).

Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Common Room (1954-1987)

More exciting tales of my misspent youth misspent the wrong ways. In the '70s, not quite a college student though old enough, I spent most of one winter and spring haunting the basement of Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota. I was taking a night class in American literature and the rest of the time prowled the library stacks, reading randomly. That's when I encountered Reynolds Price's work. Price was a lifelong professor at Duke University in North Carolina, where he also got his undergraduate degree. He wrote fiction, essays, plays, and poetry. He started teaching in the late '50s and published his first novel in 1962. Wikipedia says he was openly gay, but there's little hint of that in this collection of essays, aside from his unremarked status as a perennial bachelor and, in one piece from the '80s, a surprising candor about transsexuals. Probably, as usual, my gaydar is just off. I read his stories back in the day but his gently insistent and patient voice are very much present in these pieces too. He occupies an unusual place in literature, a son of the New Critics bravely facing the changes of the '60s, '70s, and beyond. At times I found myself irked or less than interested in some of his more conventional positions—openly Christian, a fan of John Milton (especially), Henry James, and Eudora Welty. A Southerner, his views sometimes shade over into the rationalizations of the Confederacy, yet he has an appreciation for Jimmy Carter that is refreshing to see after all the years of Carter's abuse by the organized right. Price was a very careful writer and sometimes these pieces feel one of two revisions overlabored. But he's good too—more than anything I came to respect in this collection his patience in developing and expressing his themes. These pieces are often personal but they always maintain a distance and formality appropriate for an academic. The circumstances of his life also included onset paraplegia when he was in his 50s. I was often disappointed with his opinions—typically for his generation he thinks too much of Hemingway and too little of Faulkner to suit me, for example. Yet his humility and focus make him rewarding to read—still.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 09, 2019

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

USA, 133 minutes
Director: Milos Forman
Writers: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman, Ken Kesey, Dale Wasserman
Photography: Haskell Wexler
Music: Jack Nitzsche
Editors: Sheldon Kahn, Lynzee Klingman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Scatman Carothers, Sydney Lassick, Michael Berryman

Full disclosure, as a Ken Kesey fanboy I have mostly followed his lead on this movie adaptation of his first novel, though I did see it all the way through when it was new. Kesey was involved in the early stages of making it but reportedly never even looked at it after he left over creative differences. As a result I pushed it to the side and missed how supremely popular it has remained. Its present ranking at #114 on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?—the highest it's ever been there, in fact, and the reason I'm writing about it—only begins to suggest the levels of affection that exist for it. A better gauge might be IMDb's always intriguing popularity contest of a best movies list, where The Shawshank Redemption has long ruled all. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest sits at #16 there—pretty high! But the single reason, I'm convinced, for its enduring popularity, was the Oscars sweep, taking the so-called grand slam that year (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best [adapted in this case] Screenplay), the first movie to do so since 1934's It Happened One Night, and one of only three with 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.

Winning a bunch of Oscars is not the reason to like a movie but you know how people are. I will note in passing that I do like It Happened One Night. And getting over myself enough to look again at Cuckoo's Nest reveals a number of outstanding features. It has numerous good and/or interesting performances, not just Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher (though Nicholson and Fletcher are the best), including Brad Dourif and Christopher Lloyd in their first roles, William Redfield, and Danny DeVito apparently with hair. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler's credits include In the Heat of the Night, The Conversation, and Coming Home, and he shot this in rich '70s color and luminous style. But the many grave errors of the picture's narrative are still there, romanticizing mental illness as poetical (note the dancing nut) or, even worse, as a metaphor for politics. It sees individualism as such a virtue that it makes a hero of a preening, self-serving ass who is most believable when he's out for himself alone, and least believable when his lip trembles and he appears to care.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

The History of Love (2005)

The complications in Nicole Krauss's deceptively complicated novel may have become too much for me, in spite of its many admirable qualities. It involves a man who wrote an unpublished novel called The History of Love, his friend who copied the manuscript and took credit for it, and the daughter of a couple who loved the novel and named her for its love interest ("life obsession" is more accurate). All this is mixed up with World War II and the Nazi concentration camps. What I like best is Krauss's voice for Leo Gursky, the original writer and lover, an old man in the present day getting along in New York City. His Yiddish rhythms feel precision-engineered. But his is only one voice among many. I like the 14-year-old Alma pretty well too, but even with her the complications start to get confusing. It's a good love story—the title is not misplaced—but maybe not as good as it thinks it is? Not good enough to support all this action and hold attention. Gursky's son is a famous writer. Alma's mother makes her living translating books. Leo can write a book so good someone can steal it and get it published. It's a little hard to believe, which became something of a distraction even as I tried to parse who was related to whom, and why, and in which timeframe or location. It's a big bunch, sprawling the globe, and many are dead in the present day. I came across The History of Love originally recommended in a kind of readers group newsletter, where people were very positive. It also won awards and was nominated for others. Some of my lukewarm response may be from fatigue with World War II stories, but I put more of it on the complexity here, which felt manufactured for literary effect. I'm not at all sure it's the best way to tell the love story at its heart, or what I think is its heart, the one between Leo and the original Alma. That's a pretty good story in its own right. All love stories have been done by now—it's just a matter of picking a variation and doing it well. But I'm not sure that's what happened here. Maybe the love story is actually better than this novel seems to think it is. It never really gets a chance.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

"The Screaming Skull" (1908)

I can only guess what this F. Marion Crawford story is doing in the Vampire Tales collection because I don't actually detect any vampire elements beyond some loose interpretation of the term "undead," which is never used or even implied here. No ruby red lips, in other words. If anything it's a ghost or haunted house story—specifically, haunted bedroom. But you can see from the big roundup below that it's enormously popular even in my relatively small sample. It's often hailed for its device of the hysterical first-person narrator, though I'm not sure how it can be called an innovation when you consider Edgar Allan Poe's even more widely anthologized "Tell-Tale Heart" from 1843. "The Screaming Skull" is an improvement on that score, and often wonderfully well done, I'll give it that. But this great strength can also become the greatest weakness, in both stories. "The Screaming Skull" is a little long and can drone on implausibly. The first-person narrator is speaking to another person, or believes he is, which leads to awkward constructions just trying to hold the concept together, e.g., "You want to know whether I stayed in the house till daybreak?"

So what exactly is this one-sided Bob Newhart routine all about? As far as I'm concerned, it's the premise that makes this story more than the narrative strategy. There's a skull. And it screams. That's it. Everything else is window dressing. Here's a short passage that has it all, good and bad:

You ask me why I don't throw it into the pond—yes, but please don't call it a "confounded bugbear"—it doesn't like being called names.
There! Lord, what a shriek!

It's so simple, so audacious, so ridiculous, so impossible, so thoroughly hammered home. It's not exactly scary, or even that uncanny, though it's certainly weird. Much of it, the best of it, is almost perfectly vexing, like an I Love Lucy episode. It's closer to the kind of comedy the Evil Dead movies trafficked in. The screaming skull screams even when you talk about it in another room—even when you think about it sometimes. (Perhaps the telepathy is what wins it its vampire wings.) It definitely screams when you try to move it from the cabinet in the master bedroom, and if you leave it there it makes random grumbling noises all night and wakes you every morning at 3:17 a.m. The screaming disturbs the help and makes it impossible to keep the place adequately staffed. If you try to throw it away—you can't throw it away. It's like a booger. There's a macabre backstory driving all this divine foolishness as much as the proof of concept, like what happens when you try to get rid of it. The skull belongs to a woman who is connected to the narrator. In fact, he has inherited the mansion she and her husband once lived in. She was killed by her husband in a notably grotesque manner. My skull would be screaming for all eternity too if I were done that way. The narrator blames himself (and evidently so does the screaming skull) because he suggested the manner of murder in a lighthearted way to the couple at a dinner party. He didn't know the husband was actually going to do it!

It's fair to say "The Screaming Skull" looks forward to H.P. Lovecraft, at least insofar as it pounds the implausible until we relent and believe. It doesn't matter how unlikely it might seem at first, whether screaming skull in the bedroom cabinet (like, where are the vocal cords even?) or writhing octopus head in outer space, they strike the grim and hysterical tone and pile on the hideous detail. Crawford was a bit older and more into ghosts but he was often good with hideous detail—another famous story by him, "The Upper Berth" from 1885, is more conventional in some ways, but uniquely tactile in its effects—the ghost is aboard a ship at sea and can be touched and felt. "The Screaming Skull" may go on a little too long (also like Lovecraft and not like "The Upper Berth") but it's anthologized all over the place for multiple good reasons and counts as essential.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos
The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

"The Open Window" (1911)

Saki is like a cross between Oscar Wilde and O. Henry—mechanical, perhaps, in the way his stories unfold, but the mechanics are self-aware and there in the service of wit. He wrote short (even short-short) stories that often deliver perverse twists at the end, predicated on our own unconscious expectations. Most intriguingly, his stories are also steeped in a familiarity with horror fiction, counting on the reader's own familiarity with it. As he put it himself in "The Music on the Hill," a story about the great god Pan, "It was all nonsense, of course, but ... nonsense [that] seemed able to rear a bastard brood of uneasiness." "The Open Window" involves an unnamed 15-year-old girl and a man with a bad case of nerves, Framton Nuttel. Nuttel is in the country for a rest cure, bearing letters of introduction and paying a visit on his new neighbors, the Sappletons. He has obviously read horror fiction, because when the girl, a niece of the Sappletons, starts up with what is either a ghost story or a tale of deranged family grief to explain why the window in the room is open in October, he believes every word. For that matter, so do we. Because why shouldn't we? Horror fiction makes us gullible and open to manipulation. Formally, "The Open Window" works much like a ghost story, complete with a strange and seemingly unnecessary frame, and there's even a little thrill when we think we see ghosts. Judging the whole effect, it's a good example of how subtle Saki can be, using misdirection. Things are not what they seem, but it's not the open window that's the problem, it's the girl. Yet even as she tells her fantastic story about the open window we're lulled into it quite easily. It makes perfect sense as a ghost story. Mrs. Sappleton's niece is one of Saki's most delicious creations. "The Open Window" ends on her spinning a whole new story to explain Nuttel's abrupt departure: "'I expect it was the spaniel,' said the niece calmly; 'he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him.'" In a way, she's covering for Nuttel. "Romance at short notice was her specialty," Saki concludes about this girl.

In case it's not at the library. (Read story online.)

Friday, July 26, 2019

Grizzly Man (2005)

USA, 103 minutes, documentary
Director / writer: Werner Herzog
Photography: Timothy Treadwell, Peter Zeitlinger
Music: Richard Thompson
Editor: Joe Bini
With: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog, Amie Huguenard, Jewel Palovak, Franc G. Fallico, Sven Haakanson Jr.

This documentary by director and writer Werner Herzog focuses on Timothy Treadwell, now famously dead, who by the evidence here deserves all our skepticism for him as an environmentalist. Treadwell, born in 1957, saw himself as "protector of the bears" but we see him as unstable, weird, and a little creepy, recording himself on videotape with full narration and even multiple takes. These many disparate scenes were shot on the annual summer sojourns he made to the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. There we see him as self-styled prancing magic elf of the forest, naming the bears (and the foxes too), playing with them, filming them, and all too often getting dangerously close to them. In the end one bear finally ate him and his girlfriend at the end of a lean summer. The sad reality shown here is that Treadwell did not appear to be right in the head somehow. He probably wasn't helping the bears either. But was he harming them?

That's one of the questions Herzog wrestles with as he attempts to pin down Treadwell's story, which is full of mystery and sadness. In dutiful documentary fashion Herzog produces a battery of science and wilderness experts who are embarrassed for and/or revolted by Treadwell. They argue him as a kind of anthropologist gone native, believing he wanted to be a bear and thought he was in some mystical fashion. In his final years the National Park Service attempted to hem in Treadwell and his activities with rules and policies. But he did survive some 13 summers living with his forest friends. The bears seem to know him and are accustomed to him. They respond to him and seem to temper their aggression. But was he harming them? Why does Herzog care and why should we?

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964)

For the most part this Philip K. Dick novel dispenses with the usual distortions of reality via time travel or drugs, though mental illness is prominent. In the future, Earth ("Terra") has expanded civilization to the richly populated Alpha Centauri system four and a half light-years away. Alpha Centauri has many habitable planets and moons, many of them populated by Alphanes, an insect-like breed with license plate numbers for names. But Terrans managed to get a toehold in one moon, Alpha III M2 by name, which they used to house the exiled mentally ill. But then, in the last war, it came under Alphane control, which enabled the Terrans exiled there to live as they choose. The story involves a plot on Earth to take back control of it, a mission headed up by the CIA using simulacrums controlled remotely. Dick imagines that the mentally ill Terrans on Alpha III M2 would organize themselves by diagnosis. The "Pares" are paranoid schizophrenics, "Heebs" hebephrenics (a type of schizophrenia), "Manses" manics, "Deps" depressives, etc. They are not always easy to make out from group label or behavior—the Heebs felt Rastafarian without the patois, for example—and I'm not sure any of this would be likely to ever happen, but all right. My favorite character was Lord Running Clam, a slime mold that is not only sentient but telepathic, and not only telepathic but manipulative. My love for him starts with his name. Another point I liked was a supernatural power of one character, Joan Trieste, to run time backward for up to five minutes. She works for the police department and is detailed to emergency scenes where she is able to bring people back to life if she can get there fast enough. She carries the Dick version of a beeper. Evidently her strange power only works in a localized way. I'm not as sure about certain aspects of Alpha III M2, or the strange relationship at the center of the story between a CIA agent with a moral compass and his wife without one. She's a marriage counsellor—one of the best in the business. Huh?! Inevitably there is also a TV variety show host with an uncertain agenda. Clans of the Alphane Moon probably doesn't stand with Dick's best, but even in the din of the meaningless event it does have some of his sharpest ideas.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

"The Blood-Drinking Corpse" (1740)

This very short story by the Chinese writer Pu Songling (pictured above) is even older than the year commonly given, as Pu died 25 years before its first publication in 1740. Wikipedia says most of the nearly 500 so-called "marvel tales" in the collection from which it comes—Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio, though Pu expressed a preference for the title Tales of Ghosts and Foxes—were likely completed by 1679 (there's a Penguin version published in 2006 as Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio that looks pretty good, though it has only a little over a hundred stories and doesn't seem to include this one). So this story is very old, the oldest I've run into yet, and has the additional oddities of translation along with those of old horror stories, such as a tendency to assume that simply evoking the supernatural is enough to do most of the heavy lifting for effects. Yet for all that the story retains some brute power. As may be surmised from the title, it's a vampire tale with a surprising number of vampire features intact: the undead status, the sexualizing, and of course the rejuvenating blood-sucking. The setup, out in the Chinese countryside, is as simple and straightforward as a fairy tale. Three traveling merchants stop for the night at a village where the inn is full. The only accommodation is a ruined barn with a curtain in the back. It's their only choice so they settle down there for the night. One can't sleep. Then he sees the curtain move. Naturally, this worries him. Then a figure emerges, "whose form, hardly distinct, seemed penetrated by shadow.... He, little by little, recognized the silhouette of a female, seen by her short-quilted dress and her long narrow jacket." Next thing you know she's leaning over his sleeping companions. It looks like kissing, but actually she is "drinking in long draughts." And so forth, as it goes whirling on to its compact yet effective finish. It works pretty well as a blunt force instrument. I do understand the complaint with vampire tales as too often matters of bruised-purple romance—cheap Halloween goth, more or less—with all the rules and embellishments just crumbling into tiresome devices of mirrors and sunlight and garlic and vermin and mesmerism and wooden stakes and god knows what not. Perhaps because of its swift brevity, Pu Songling's "Blood-Drinking Corpse" makes a convincing case for this vampire as simple soulless desolate uncanny beast of the night.

Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Loving (1945)

I have my objections to the Modern Library list of the best 20th-century English-language novels, but occasionally it points me to something I might not have got to otherwise. That's the case with this odd British novel by Henry Green. It's an Upstairs, Downstairs type of story set in an Irish country house during the London Blitz attacks of World War II. All the servants and the family too are British. Relations with Ireland and the Irish were tenuous at the time. There's lots of talk against Catholics (called "Romans") and the IRA. But it's a comedy, acerbic and knowing, about how the classes live and abide with one another (or don't). It starts and ends like a fairy tale. The first thing that happens is the head butler dies—one of the funniest death scenes I've ever read, running in the background. The footman who succeeds him, Charley Raunce, is our basic hero, a philandering slippery nogoodnik who appears poised to change for the better, maybe. He's chasing Edith, who is some 20 years his junior, and she appears capable of making him an honest man. Maybe. Meanwhile, the lives of the others grind on, with humdrum petty spats and rancor that is somehow hugely entertaining. You have to work a little at Green's style and approach. It's a 19th-century manners kind of story but told with 20th-century zip: all elliptical concrete details and ear-pure dialogue. Sometimes it's like he's going out of his way to confuse—two boys among the servants are named Albert, for example, and it's easy to mix them up. Others in the household do too. There are episodes of adultery, alcoholism, and other troubles—decoration. The scenes with the unfaithful wife (from upstairs) are funny partly because we know things in these scenes the characters don't. Green is remarkably skillful at setting up and executing scenes like little miniatures. The greatest strength of Loving is that it is so nonjudgmental about all the things it sees. It just shows them to us, with perhaps a hint of a smirk. Can you even believe the things people do? it seems to be saying. Oh look at this now. I liked it quite a bit. I can't explain the title. It's true there's a love story here, but it's mostly unbelievable, in an affable and slightly cheeky sort of way. We have to take it as given. It seems more likely the title was meant to fit with other similar gerund formation titles of Green novels: Living, Party Going, Doting, etc. Not that they're all like that (e.g., Blindness, Caught, Nothing). But they do all have a Pet Shop Boys kind of single-word tang. Loving is good enough I might look into some of them.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Gone With the Wind (1939)

USA, 238 minutes
Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood
Writers: Margaret Mitchell, Sidney Howard, Oliver H.P. Garrett, Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, John Van Druten
Photography: Ernest Haller, Lee Garmes
Music: Max Steiner
Editors: Hal C. Kern, James E. Newcom, Ernie Leadlay, Richard L. Van Enger
Cast: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O'Neil, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Victor Jory, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, Laura Hope Crews, Harry Davenport, Jane Darwell, Ona Munson, Ward Bond, George Reeves, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Oscar Polk

It's arguable that the two most significant American movies of the first half of the 20th century were D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, which invented epic cinema, and Gone With the Wind, which fully implemented it in technicolor with sound. It's arguable, but I wouldn't want to make the argument, because they look to me too much like propaganda exercises for the valorization of the South and its slavery culture, busy with misleading historical reclamation projects. Or maybe I would prefer to argue that screwball comedies have more significance than epic cinema. Still, the ticket buyers have voted. That's Gone With the Wind even now sitting atop the list of all-time domestic grosses adjusted for inflation. It's the most commercially successful movie of all time, even taken out of circulation for decades after its initial release. (For the curious, the rest of that all-time top 10 goes Star Wars, The Sound of Music, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Titanic, The Ten Commandments [1956], Jaws, Doctor Zhivago, The Exorcist, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.)

I have never warmed much to Gone With the Wind, which I finally had a chance to see in the early '80s on VHS, and I like it less all the time as the country spirals backward in values. Alabama's Roy Moore, for one, specifically pointed to the South's slavery period as the last time America was great, and it seems as likely as anything (because who knows what that "great" is supposed to mean in "Make America Great Again") that's the era they're thinking of and clamoring so hard for. I find myself arguing all the time with the title cards in this ridiculous overwrought show: "Here in this pretty world," an early one burbles, "Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave ... Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered." Dream for some, nightmare for many. I'm sure you can guess my complaints. As an exercise, as a remedy, and to maintain the equilibrium I need for this movie, I decided to focus on what I think is good in Gone With the Wind.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

On Writing (2000)

I haven't read that much Stephen King, maybe a half-dozen of his novels, but I have a real fondness for two nonfiction volumes: Danse Macabre, a critical horror overview, and this one, a writing manual and memoir with free-rolling digressions, rudely interrupted by a roadside accident that nearly killed him. King is obviously not entirely comfortable with the memoir side of the project, which he freely admits, but he still has an interesting and great by-the-bootstraps story. He's rich now but he wasn't always and his drive and work ethic are impressive. The writing guide part of this is less interesting, though I generally enjoy the exercise and agree with him on many things. He may be too much of a Strunk & White partisan for my taste. That little book is hugely entertaining but it's full of gaps and I don't always agree with its style judgments. See Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage for the real stuff. In terms of memoir, I like King's loyalty to his roots—all of them, from the horror and science fiction genres to working-class Maine. And I love his dedication to wide-ranging and eclectic reading. My favorite part of this book might be the recent reading list of novels and other books he offers that takes up several pages at the end. It has room for Peter Abrahams, Richard Bausch, Joseph Conrad, Kent Haruf, Annie Proulx, and scores more. I also appreciate his devotion to his wife, especially when he credits her and not writing for bringing him back from the accident. It just feels honest. You surely know where you are on Stephen King—don't we all, at this point (and also J.K. Rowling)? This is an essential stop if you like him and worth a look even if you know you don't. As always, my preconceptions betray me. I'm surprised to see a certified master of horror who appears to be such a model of emotional health. Edgar Allan Poe better fits my own sense of the role—disreputable, in ill health, dead early, like that. In many ways somehow Stephen King is the Bruce Springsteen of horror fiction—vastly talented, vastly generous, and, yes, a certain model of virtuous mental health. I'm actually not sure where I am on King as a writer at the moment. I used to think he was underrated, now I tend to think he's overrated. I stalled completely on his Dark Tower series of eight books after the first, and I notice his stuff rarely improves on second readings. That's the case for me even here. I read this and liked it a lot when it was newer, but reading again for this write-up I wasn't nearly as dazzled. Its best features were the comforts of shared worldviews, which in a way is enough in a memoir.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 05, 2019

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

USA, 69 minutes
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writers: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray, Inez Wallace, Charlotte Bronte, Val Lewton
Photography: J. Roy Hunt
Music: Roy Webb
Editor: Mark Robson
Cast: Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Darby Jones, James Ellison, Christine Gordon, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Sir Lancelot, Theresa Harris, Jieno Moxzer

When RKO Pictures hired producer Val Lewton to make what turned out to be a famous series of mild horror pictures in the '40s, the studio had three requirements for him: the movies had to be cheap (under $150,000), short (under 75 minutes), and use the evocative titles they gave him ("Cat People," "Bedlam," "The Seventh Victim"), as if they were creative writing instructors dispensing cues. Yet the results are undeniable, strange and quiet, straining against rules, expertly made, bruised moody and beautiful, though often undercutting their own effects by so resolutely looking away from things they suggest. Too expensive to shoot, no doubt. The Curse of the Cat People, a sequel to Cat People, is barely related to the first movie. In fact, it's barely horror—much closer to fairy tale fantasy, with a unique sympathy for lonely children. And one of the best Lewton made.

Speaking of best, director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, Curse / Night of the Demon, Canyon Passage) was probably the best director Lewton had. He directed Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, as well as the somewhat less effective Leopard Man. I Walked With a Zombie is based on a magazine article about workers in Haiti controlled through drug dosing, but Lewton gave it some literary torque by picking up one of the main plot threads from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and injecting it into his Haitian mood. This Zombie is a movie more about voodoo than George Romero's reimagining of zombies as some horrific virus that reanimates corpses. See also an RKO picture with Bela Lugosi from more than 10 years earlier, the 1932 White Zombie, working much the same idea. Voodoo and a tinge of racism lurking in the back are what give I Walked With a Zombie most of its juice, of which it has plenty.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

"The Spider" (1908)

This fine and widely collected story by the German writer Hanns Heinz Ewers is approximately where my shallow grounding in fantasy and speculative fiction begins to show. It's all I know by him, though he wrote many other stories and is actually best known for a novel, Alraune, which is part of a trilogy. He kept himself otherwise occupied in a number of useful ways, such as editing an eight-volume collection of horror and fantasy literature, preaching Satanism on the lecture circuit, and likely loading up on absinthe a lot. He was probably gay and dallied long enough with German Nazis to destroy his own reputation, even though the Nazis personally destroyed his life because he was homosexual.

In many ways Ewers trucked with his own disreputability (like Mick Jagger or Marilyn Manson), and some of that is seen in "The Spider," which for example helps itself to ideas and signifiers from a couple of other very specific sources. In one case it verges on plagiarism. Ah but what is it that Ewers's Spanish contemporary, Pablo Picasso, is reputed to have said? Good artists copy. Great artists steal. Ewers makes vast improvements on what he steals. And then, in an amazing feat of something like time travel, he rhymes details in this story in uncanny ways with Roman Polanski's 1976 movie The Tenant and reminds us we shouldn't stay up all night on the internet.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

"The Lumber Room" (1914)

Saki was always so good at using children to set sinister tones in scenes that are really not sinister at all. "The Lumber Room" takes no turns toward violence, let alone the supernatural, yet it seethes with a malevolence that feels almost toxic. Nicholas is staying with his cousins and their aunt. He refuses to acknowledge her as his aunt. She is strict and can be punitive when challenged. On the morning of the story Nicholas claims he can't eat his breakfast because there is a frog in it. The aunt tells him there could not possibly be a frog in his "bread-and-milk." Nicholas describes it in detail and the aunt denies it more. But there is a frog because Nicholas put it there. He has exposed another lazy lying adult. The aunt, angry for his prank, grounds him for the day, barring him a jaunt to the beach with the other children. In addition, he is forbidden to go into the gooseberry garden, which the aunt evidently believes would be the main attraction for a boy confined at home for the day. But it is actually the lumber room that appeals to him, where old furniture, unwanted gifts, and other miscellaneous junk are kept out of sight. The aunt spends the day puttering about the place, ignoring Nicholas as further punishment. After a while she notices she doesn't know where he is, searches for him, and ends up in a predicament in which the tables are turned and she needs his help. It's more a matter of inconvenience than danger, but it's also not entirely clear, which makes the moment when Nicholas must decide what to do unusually fraught with tension. Then he makes his decision—to do the wrong thing. In these scant few paragraphs the tension is high. It's all of youth in conflict with all of age and the vulnerable pathos of Nicholas is remarkable. It's a daring and outrageous act in the moment, much like the lie the little girl will tell in "The Open Window." This tension and pathos is what Saki is good at. Nicholas is at once a typical annoying misbehaving boy and a kind of heroic figure, willfully mistreated by an adult who is supposed to know better. This adult, the aunt, is the one who gets the comeuppance in this story and she's the one who most deserves it, so it's as satisfying as it is entertaining.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Solved! (1987)

Richard Glyn Jones is a busy anthologist who might be best known for "Mammoth Book" collections: The Mammoth Book of True Murder, The Mammoth Book of Killer Women, and The Mammoth Book of Women Who Kill are three of his. I don't know them—the only place it seemed like I ever saw those Mammoth Books was at Half Price Books and I haven't been there in a while. I found out about Solved! in Bill James's book on true-crime literature. It's a sequel of sorts to another Jones collection (Unsolved!, natch). The idea is famous writers writing about famous crime cases, with or without conjecture about whodunit. It's a bit misleading that way—the last piece here, for example, is Harlan Ellison's short story about Jack the Ripper set in the future. Jack the Ripper is not a solved case and we don't know that he was transported to the future. Still, for the most part they are interesting cases, interesting treatments, or both. In his introduction Jones says the collection is built around the three longest pieces, by Arthur Conan Doyle, Damon Runyon, and Erle Stanley Gardner: "the tripartite core of this collection and [showing] the writer as detective, reporter and judge." Again, yes and no. Doyle's piece does more to clarify the gap between mystery fiction writers and crime investigation. He might have guessed right about the solution to an open case, but he doesn't seem that credible and the police ignored him completely, though at least that was likely self-serving. Doyle's piece is best at showing how police have been self-serving for a long time. Damon Runyon's series of newspaper reports on a sensational murder of the 1920s has some intrinsic interest, but reads like someone typing in a hurry. Erle Stanley Gardner's treatment of Argosy magazine's so-called "Court of Last Resort"—a kind of early Innocence Project—is good stuff, though the case itself doesn't hold that much interest, alas. Robert Graves writes about the poisoning of the Roman emperor Claudius. Other writers appearing here include Ellery Queen, John D. MacDonald, and Edgar Wallace. Jones shows up with excited headnotes for some of the pieces, not all. The book has more than its share of typos and other printing errors. The result is that it feels like a hurry-up job rushed to market. A lot like those Mammoth Books at Half Price Books always looked, in fact. But I like the scope of this and its literary ambitions, however misplaced. And as true-crime, it's perfectly adequate for the most part. As each writer settles into relating the facts of a case, or most of them, I soon feel the reveries of reading true-crime overcome me. Not bad.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fundamental (2006)

Fundamental exists at a certain point for me of perfect indifference toward the Pet Shop Boys, a lost album between when I started seriously losing interest with Release and before my retrospective interest revived  in a second-chapter kind of way with Yes. I couldn't connect with the 2005 Battleship Potemkin project for a long time—I think now it's a worthy if somewhat anemic effort, anemic perhaps by design or necessity as a formal soundtrack—and then I had instinctive animus against the pointless, witless "Sodom and Gomorrah Show" and "I'm With Stupid," which seemed to me much worse than any of the others might have been good enough, making the album not even worth hearing (my problems with the skip button are an issue for another time). I haven't changed my position there much. Note to b-side naysayers: all of Alternative is better than either. They are real all-career lows, stupid songs that act as if we are as stupid as they are pretending to be, so to speak. The album opener, "Psychological," is pro forma. "I Made My Excuses and Left" is one of their typically great titles but the song is only overdone recycled effects. "Minimal" is a reasonable rouser, though it sags some. The Diane Warren song "Numb," big and purple as it is, may be the best song here. Indulging their penchant for theatrical drama (albeit growing alarmingly sentimental), with Neil Tennant in the spotlight putting it all out there (yet also keyword "numb"), it is easier to forgive given how affecting this song somehow is on its face. That means I just plain like it, though I may not understand why, as with the original "MacArthur Park"—something so ineffably sad about that cake. The shorty "God Willing" and "Luna Park," more of a two-part suite, follow in a similar vein with more certain syrupy attractions. "Casanova in Hell" is even more of same, in an acoustic vein, but now it's not working, "Twentieth Century" is back to more like it, with a groove, a hypnotic melody, and the sweet hope of love. "Sometimes the solution is worse than the problem" speaks to its big ambitious title as well as its intimate romantic comedy lyric. "Indefinite Leave to Remain" feels recycled but more or less lives up to the nice title—another torchy one for Tennant. And "Integral" finishes the way the album starts—pro forma. A perfectly professional product, delivered approximately on time. It's Fundamental.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

USA, 138 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood, Jerry Belson, John Hill, Matthew Robbins
Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Music: John Williams
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey, J. Allen Hynek

Director Steven Spielberg's first (and best) movie about aliens from outer space is a curious mixture of the arty and the boffo. A good argument can be made that it's a movie about religion, faith, and/or obsession (sort of like Ordet). As with many visionary art films first the middle is too long and then the ending is way too long. But Close Encounters also has a global perspective right out of Hollywood pictures like Casablanca, traveling (or pretending to travel) to such far-flung exotic points as the Sonora Desert in Mexico, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, Dharmsala in Northern India, and Alabama as Indiana, looking expensive for the sake of a few intriguing narrative details. Plus the special effects, of course. And it's juiced constantly with theatrical movie alarm and/or juvenile humor. Bob Balaban as an interpreter is given regular freak-out scenes as things develop, and at one of the headiest moments in the formal encounter with the aliens a man is shown running desperately for the porta-potty. Diarrhea, I presume. Or maybe cognitive dissonance.

Close Encounters has long been a favorite of mine, for good reasons and weird (where the RUCK are those aliens?! we really need them now). It's one of those movies I've seen enough that I can recite lines as they are coming. In fact, in some cases ("Don't you think I'm taking this really well?" ... "Who are you people?") I'm down to working on specific intonations. I said a lot of what I have to say about this fascination affair several years ago in a rundown of favorite movies I did with Phil Dellio and Steven Rubio—about the suburbs, the obsessions, the higher truths out there. Now I feel like I'm starting to just burnish the same points. Let’s say I'm being overly completist about getting to all those titles from the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Although, at the same time, it is interesting how Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a real mouthful of a title!) continues to reveal itself even at this level of familiarity.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

"The Monkey's Paw" (1902)

Proceeding now to the unassailable classics, spoilers blazing, this story by W.W. Jacobs is rightly considered one of the best horror short stories. It has been widely anthologized to the point where it is generally groaned over in places like Amazon reviews as an obvious choice when it shows up in another collection. The prolific Jacobs was more of a humorist by inclination, and perhaps even more a spinner of seagoing yarns. He only wrote a dozen or two horror stories and the others I've looked at are more rote, straining for effects they can't quite muster, or that other stories by other writers did much better. In a way, that makes Jacobs an example, for me anyway, of a writer who wrote only one spectacular story.

Among other things "The Monkey's Paw" is one of the best uses of the "three wishes" device, which dates back of course at least to the Arabian Nights into antiquity out of folk fairy tales. This story, in fact, is ridiculously simple in structure. It feels 19th-century in the language and the way it is divided into chapters—indeed, it's often compared to Dickens—but it's a model of compression compared to much 19th-century horror, which often prefers to pile detail teeteringly high in monolithic paragraphs (a mode that continued with H.P. Lovecraft and continues still). In many ways the publication date of "The Monkey's Paw" in the early 20th century feels auspicious.

The story includes a familiar figure of all eras of horror, the worried man of authority, in this case a British Army veteran who served in India, where he acquired the foul object of the story's title. Sergeant-Major Morris is paying a visit to the Whites, an elderly couple with a grown son, Herbert, who still lives with them. They are a ridiculously happy and complacent family. After a few drinks the grizzled veteran tells them the story of the monkey's paw, setting off one of the most artful pieces of the story. Everyone always talks about the knocking in this story, and we'll get to that, but I think this is the really important piece of it.

Monday, June 17, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)

If you go by IMDb ratings, the movies in the John Wick franchise just keep getting better and better, with scores of 7.4 for the first one, 7.9 for the second, and early returns showing an even 8.0 for this new one. I wouldn't actually know because, as much as I liked the first one, I have a policy about sequels so I never saw the second. Then people seemed to like this new one and I found myself in the mood for it. The popcorn guy told me he'd heard it was the greatest action movie ever made of all time, and thought I should have seen the second one because something happens in it (he didn't want to give it away) that is important in this one. Yeah, right, I think I can guess—something about a dog and/or hit man Wick (Keanu Reeves) getting out of line with this crazy Assassins Bureau thing. Look, really, plot is the least thing you need to be worried about in Parabellum (which comes from the Latin phrase Si vis pacem, para bellum, "if you want peace, prepare for war," and is also a brand name for a semiautomatic pistol or machine gun). What's important are the fights and the techno music, though there may not be enough techno music in this one. They're brutal, and some can be grotesque, though actually there's not much gore or torture. Instead, most are more like choreography, real popping slopping things of beauty in kinetic motion and coordination, ranging across wide fields of hand-to-hand combat disciplines with or without an equally wide variety of deadly instruments. In fact, as a conceit, the comparison is made explicitly here with ballet. As with the best action pictures, a lot depends on the setups and execution. In this movie the narrative setups may be lame but the execution is excellent. The action can be positively witty. For example, an early fight takes place in a knife store. Hey, why not? Smash the cases as you go, then rapidly hurl knives, what could go wrong? One guy dies with about seven of them stuck in his skull. Then there's one more thing with an ax. In another fight, in a room of all glass, Wick sets a land speed record for smashing through cases, and every burst of shattering glass, no matter how unlikely, is explosive and satisfying. My favorite might be another early one, with Wick on horseback in Manhattan. Horseback! The movie has a waxy metallic kind of look, with super-saturated nighttime colors and a kind of high-contrast glowing texture that's a little off-putting. Is that a film stock choice or something required for high-speed shooting at night? Too often it looks like a Guy Ritchie picture. I'm no expert on action movies but I will say Parabellum had a lot of the look and feel of the Raid movies. Maybe most action movies do now? Popcorn guy sources notwithstanding, I would still put them a little ahead of the two John Wicks I have seen (the third, or rather second, is on its way to me now from Netflix). Keanu Reeves is starting to show his age a little, 55 this year, but that doesn't matter much either. He's going to be doing this for a long time. Consider Liam Neeson. Meanwhile, Parabellum: for when you're in a kinetic mood.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

The first novel by James Joyce took over 10 years to write. Published when Joyce was 34, it's not a big book. The time was occupied with poverty, drinking, revising, and drafting, not necessarily in that order. At one point it was giant. I read it in my 20s and reread it recently and both times I loved the first half and then felt this autobiographical artist-coming-of-age tale bog down as the main character Stephen Dedalus reaches his mid-teens, when religion swamps his education and fuels a provocative resentment. My favorite sections might be the transcriptions of their lessons on hell, which are vivid and just a little sick: "The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls." The lesson goes on like that for quite some time. Joyce's language all through is singing, vibrant, and concrete, not just on hell, but the narrative is often elliptical, forcing us to construct context and setting from clues. It lands hard on specific points in time, but then skips ahead with little warning beyond new chapters and line breaks. In a general way I share Joyce's resentments about the church, but I certainly don't share his experience. That's mainly what mires me down in the second half, as religion marks and distorts every aspect of his life and especially his education. No wonder he's so pissed off. I would also like to register another complaint about the Modern Library list, which ranks this as third-best novel in the 20th century behind only Ulysses and The Great Gatsby. In other words, two of the top three on the list are by Joyce. As it happens, Joyce is one of the few writers on this list who I think deserves two titles, as opposed to, say, Joseph Conrad (4), Evelyn Waugh (3), Ford Madox Ford (2), and other lapses. For that matter, Joyce doesn't deserve the three he gets—down at #77 we find Finnegans Wake of all things. Did all the voters really reread it to make sure it was as good as they remembered? That position, about #77, is where I think Portrait should go, a worthy and valuable book but not nearly as good as many it's ranked over (The Sound and the Fury, Catch-22, and The Grapes of Wrath, to name three in the top 10). Well, file all that under the agony of making lists. The religion aspect of Portrait might make it less interesting to me—in terms of liberating oneself from that particular morass I think Samuel Butler's Way of All Flesh is the better novel (or memoir), if decidedly 19th-century and not modern. But Joyce is such a good writer, and so modern, he can obscure things like that.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

USA, 108 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville, Gordon McDonell
Photography: Joseph A. Valentine
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editor: Milton Carruth
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Hume Cronyn, Macdonald Carey, Wallace Ford, Edna May Wonacott

In my attempts to make the case that Fritz Lang's M is flawed and overrated, too much a propaganda exercise pushing for return of a death penalty in Germany in the early '30s—hey, we all have our blind spots—I used to counter claims it was the best serial killer movie of all time by calling attention to Shadow of a Doubt, director Alfred Hitchcock's first movie set exclusively in the US and also reportedly his own favorite of all the movies he made. In 1986, Henry made the whole argument moot, of course (though not all fans of M see it that way), and in hindsight I would have to say that Hitchcock's conception of a serial killer and his society is nearly as romanticized and off-key as M, though both movies also have many things right about the curious brutal phenomenon of modern life.

M focuses on the sexual perversion, general skulking pathetic qualities, and the heinousness of the crimes, preying on children, whereas Shadow of a Doubt makes Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, typically great even in an unusual role for him) more of a preening Nietzschean superman type, openly, almost compulsively scornful of social institutions such as banks and churches. A soul of darkness. He's the one you'd think more likely to send postcards to newspapers and police. But Uncle Charlie is actually a good deal more circumspect and ultimately perhaps rational, going to great pains to hide his identity and in many ways committing his crimes for the money. He's closer to Patricia Highsmith's Mr. Ripley than Jack the Ripper. The genius here is to set this serial killer down in the middle of California small-town Leave it to Beaver land.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Top 40

1. Blood Orange, "Charcoal Baby" (4:02)
2. Sons of Kemet, "My Queen Is Harriet Tubman" (5:38)
3. Wizkid, "Fever" (4:12)
4. Lizzo, "Boys" (2:52)
5. Lil Peep, "Life Is Beautiful" (3:27)
6. Elle Goulding, Diplo & Swae Lee, "Close to Me" (3:02)
7. A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, "Look Back at It" (2:59)
8. Lauren Daigle, "You Say (piano/vocal)" (4:36)
9. Janice and Bill Youngman, "Wings" (6:47, 2017)
10. Gary Clark Jr., "This Land" (5:41)
11. Ariana Grande, "Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored" (3:10)
12. Dean Lewis, "Be Alright" (3:16)
13. Freddie Gibbs, "Bandana" (3:21)
14. Gesaffelstein, "Blast Off" (3:36)
15. Avey Tare, "Taken Boy" (3:41)
16. Deafheaven, "Black Brick" (7:27)
17. Weezer, "High as a Kite" (3:47)
18. Weezer, "Living in L.A." (3:37)
19. Marissa Nadler, "If We Make It Through the Summer" (2:20)
20. Jay Som, "Simple" (3:41)
21. Kera, "Bright Future Ahead" (3:19)
22. Jessie Ware, "Adore You" (3:45)
23. Wye Oak, "Evergreen" (3:47)
24. Pet Shop Boys, "On Social Media" (3:33)
25. Sebastian Hagensen, "Hold Back the River" (2:20)
26. Jonas Brothers, "Sucker" (3:01)
27. Feed Me, "Sleepless" (5:33)
28. Fata Morgana, "La Atlantida" (4:53)
29. Raiki, "No More (Original Mix)" (5:03)
30. Karen O & Danger Mouse, "Turn the Light" (3:19)
31. Dream Syndicate, "Black Light" (4:40)
32. Dave, "Black" (3:48)
33. Nakhane feat. Anohin, "New Brighton" (3:19)
34. Lola Indigo, "Mujer Bruja" (3:23)
35. Unperfect, "Gots to Give the Girl" (4:05)
36. E-40, "Melt" (2:20)
37. Sky Ferreira, "Downhill Lullaby" (5:32)
38. Bad Religion, "Do the Paranoid Style" (1:46)
39. Tame Impala, "Patience" (4:52)
40. Ciara, "Thinkin Bout You" (3:48)

tx: Billboard, Spin, Skip D. Expense, The Stranger, The Singles Jukebox, social media at random, hearing the Ariana Grande song on the radio confirmed it for me

Monday, June 10, 2019

Rocketman (2019)

I first saw the preview for this movie at the same time I first saw the preview for Bohemian Rhapsody so the two movies have always seemed a little linked to me. Glad they finally put this one out, timed to coincide with Elton John's farewell (until the next one no doubt) tour. There are other connections, such as the obvious: '70s gay rock star lifestyle writing hits cocaine abuse consequences biopic, etc. The director of Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher, was listed as an executive producer on Bohemian Rhapsody after he stepped in to finish it when director Bryan Singer stepped out. That reminds me of the way Bill Pohlad, who directed the Brian Wilson / Beach Boys picture Love & Mercy, from 2014, has spent most of his career as a producer (Brokeback Mountain, The Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave). Can producers just not resist the opportunity to direct these behemoth rock star exercises? Or are they that easy? Somehow it makes me think of Jann Wenner writing a record review. The movie that nagged at me most during Rocketman was the Beatles show from 2007, Across the Universe. They both basically combine history, biopic, old-fashioned musical, and newfangled music video modes into swirling demi-psychedelic demi-head-trip jukebox musicals, with valuable trivia. Lots of familiar Elton John faves for one and all are deployed to illustrate phases of his life: "The Bitch Is Back," "Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting)," "Honky Cat," "Your Song," "Tiny Dancer," more. They're not the originals but they're usually close enough (again like Across the Universe). "Crocodile Rock" notably gets a terrific treatment, asserting itself again as one of the great rock 'n' roll songs of the '70s. Never mind it's given as performed at the historic Troubador stand (another feature of Rocketman: all songs all out of sequence). And just when you think they're running out of them, along come "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," or the redoubtable "Bennie and the Jets."

But the other piece about Bohemian Rhapsody that occurred to me with Rocketman was the controversy about biopics and truth. Bohemian Rhapsody had a major whitewasher falsehood that profoundly disrespected Freddie Mercury and what he wanted to be to fans, for the sake of a big rousing finish. That doesn't happen in Rocketman, though obviously there are exaggerations, distortions, and the usual biopic problems related to moviemaker liberties (this one with a sense of history as if ripped to shreds by a slasher). But it does take the emotional travails of Elton John quite seriously, chasing down his issues with his father and his mother, his alcoholism and drug problems, his inability to sustain a relationship, and more than anything the sadness at the center of his life. As a conceit, the frame story is set in a group therapy session at a rehab clinic. Or maybe it was just a plain old AA meeting. Well, not exactly a plain old anything as Elton is in costume for much of it (and of course out of costume at the end of it). But there he is laying it all right out on us. The result is a much more honest picture but somehow with much fewer pure highs of pleasure. I'm wondering if that's really the terms of this trade-off, or maybe it just happened by accident here. It made me think of a spirited defense I read of Bohemian Rhapsody (by Christopher Frizzelle in the Seattle Stranger) which makes the argument that Freddie Mercury didn't want to be remembered as a casualty. He wanted to be remembered as an electrifying performer. I went to Rocketman with high expectations, so that might be part of the problem too. It's tremendous at many points. Elton's friendship with Bernie Taupin is wonderful, an unusual union and very touching. Also interesting to see Elton treated as an early musical prodigy—I hadn't known that. And it's probably honest, right?! Still, I would have appreciated a little higher quotient of electrifying performances in Rocketman. After all, it's what we know Elton John can do.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

What Is the What (2006)

I knew virtually nothing about the Lost Boys of Sudan when I started Dave Eggers's "novel," but after finishing it I not only have a better understanding of that chapter of history, but the details are also impossibly vivid. I use the term novel in scare quotes because that is the book's marketing label and the category in which it won awards and acclaim. What Is the What is closer in form to a memoir—closer even than to biography, because it tells the story of Valentine Achak Deng in the first person. Achak (as he is most often called here) lost his parents and siblings and was forced to flee his Sudanese village on foot after it was overrun by violence and destruction in the long Sudanese civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2005. He was not even 10. Joining with others, he walked nearly 2,000 miles to a refuge in Ethiopia, from which he was ejected by wartime circumstances and forced to make another long trek on foot to Kenya. Eventually, as an adult, he finds his way to the US as an immigrant. What Eggers has done with this story is nothing less than remarkable. It does work like a novel because in many ways it's structured like one—with a 24-hour frame story set in Atlanta, where Achak finally lands, that proceeds with unreeling memories of his life. It works like a memoir because Eggers so completely occupies the point of view of Achak. Eggers already showed his skill for memoir and lost boys in his own tale published six years earlier, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his first book. It's interesting to see someone so immersed in memoir who also appears to be so egoless, at least in his writing. What Is the What (subtitled The Autobiography of Valentine Achak Deng) works so well because there is so little Eggers and so much Achak. But the telling here counts nearly as much as the tale. By making it a novel, taking the liberties of flashbacks, information artfully withheld, suspense, and other techniques of fiction, it bypasses dry historical accounts and is that much more effective. Once here, Achak has nearly as many problems in the US, and ultimately this story encompasses American experience as much as Sudanese, Ethiopian, and Kenyan. And if Eggers has the human spirit of Achak right, as he seems to, he's even more shrewd about getting out of the way of it. In spite of a life of unimaginable privations and hardships, Achak is a warm light burning bright. You can't help but love him, and this book is the most direct way into that for most of us. I'm really tempted to call it a masterpiece.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

France / Japan, 90 minutes
Director: Alain Resnais
Writer: Marguerite Duras
Photography: Michio Takahashi, Sacha Vierny
Music: Georges Delerue, Giovanni Fusco
Editors: Jasmine Chasney, Henri Colpi, Anne Sarraute
Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada

From the title and into the early scenes, Hiroshima mon amour, a collaboration of director Alain Resnais and writer Marguerite Duras, gives the impression it's going to be a radically political type of story about nuclear anxiety and/or nuclear guilt. But that is eventually left behind, as the swirling mists of rampant prolific gray arty style slowly give way to two beautiful people talking, and the picture turns into something like an extended therapy session. Therapy not for us but for Elle (Emmanuelle Riva), who has a devastating and psychologically complex past to live with, many of whose issues she is still acting out. Besides, if it was going to be a political movie it probably would have made more sense to call it Nagasaki mon amour.

Here's the breakdown. Elle is a French actress making a film in Hiroshima about peace. Lui (Eiji Okada) is a Japanese architect and native of Hiroshima who missed the bomb (though his family did not) because he was away fighting the war. Lui (a masculine pronoun) is two years older than Elle (a feminine pronoun). (The names are a convenience via IMDb, never used in the movie. Some sources prefer to call them "She" and "He.") They are in their 30s, beautiful, middle-class, and materially comfortable. During the war, when she was 18 and living in the small French city of Nevers, where she was born and raised, Elle had a German boyfriend. Thus, for whatever reasons, maybe even coincidence, we see Elle as drawn (innocently or otherwise) to her nominal and/or former enemies. I should mention that in many ways Hiroshima mon amour doesn't have that much of a narrative presence, so I might already be dwelling too much on it.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

"The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (1841)

This story by Edgar Allan Poe is at least as difficult as it is strange. Every time I go back to it I find myself losing attention for most of the first half. It's formally presented as a dialogue between two spirits in the afterlife who were lovers or married when they were alive. Monos (Greek masculine form of "one") was the first to die, apparently—he has memories of Una (Latin feminine form of "one") grieving at his funeral ceremonies. Now he seems to be explaining the afterlife to her. Perhaps she has just died. If it's classified as a horror story, and I'm not sure it should be, that's chiefly for two reasons: 1) it was written by Poe, and 2) its vision of the afterlife is bound to be disturbing to many as a version of being buried alive (a familiar Poe motif). I'm not 100% comfortable myself with his vision yet I find it somehow more soothing than unsettling, even exhilarating in a way. To be honest I'm not even sure I'm getting it right. The introduction to the online version I found, for example, characterizes this piece as "Conversations between two Athenians who have experienced life and death several times. They are frustrated because mankind never seems to learn from the past." Actually I'm not at all sure that's it, but given the business model of the website—"a 'G' rated study resource for junior high, high school, college students, teachers and home schoolers"—it may be they don't want to fly right at this one.

As I say, it's not easy to make out. The story is outfitted with multiple foreign languages, including Greek rendered in the Greek alphabet (hence "Athenians," I presume, though I believe Una would then have to be more like Roman). The dialogue between Monos and Una is not easy to follow even when it's in English. It's actually, title notwithstanding, more of a soliloquy by Monos, who can't quite figure out how to say what he wants to say. "Words are vague things," he says in one of the most straightforward declarative sentences in the whole thing. "[A]fter some days there came upon me, as you have said, a breathless and motionless torpor; and this was termed Death by those who stood around me.... I was not unconscious of those movements which displaced you from me, which confined me within the coffin, which deposited me within the hearse, which bore me to the grave, which lowered me within it, which heaped heavily the mould upon me, and which there left me, in blackness and corruption, to my sad and solemn slumbers with the worm." Though this last passage is very close to the end of the story, there's still a good deal more to be revealed by Monos in the last three paragraphs, which it might be fair to call epic revelations, come thou now and hear the word. Certainly this section works on me that way. This is the part of the story that thrills me, which has even led me to inflict it on others in informal reading discussion groups and now to make a home for it in these contemplations of horror short stories. Asking others to look at it is always when I'm suddenly reminded how strange and how difficult the story is, whether or not you call it horror. I don't even know Poe well enough to understand what kind of a story it is for him (it seems a departure from everything else I've read) or how much of an anomaly it might be. But the thing practically floors me every time, extolling its oxymoronic balm of death's sting.

Read story online. (Library of America)

Monday, June 03, 2019

Booksmart (2019)

This coming-of-age teen comedy romp may be implausible and full of holes but it's still a pretty good time and often funny. It's the night before high school graduation—the whole night, actually, so in a way director Olivia Wilde and the four screenwriters are courting American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. But it's quite a bit more loopy and surprising than either of those movies. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) realizes that she and her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have spent all their time at high school with their noses to the grindstone to make the grade to get into good schools. They never had fun like the rest of the kids, on whom they generally look with bemused disdain. But, in turn, they know they are only regarded by them as good-girl drudges and they feel they deserve better. The night follows, with the general aim of finding a party at Nick's aunt's place, wherever that is. Feldstein and Dever have a lot of chemistry and they are going to make this movie work no matter what it takes or what the script tells them they have to do. Molly and Amy have elaborate, weird, and hilarious affirmation rituals they go through when they meet or just before challenges. They are smart, sensitive, geeky, charming, and funny when their inhibitions drop, but high school social pressures being what they are they only rarely drop. There are wonderful characters here. A poor little rich boy, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), who kept reminding me of Jackie Chan. His mysterious sister, or cousin (or something), Gigi (Billie Lourd), who is literally everywhere Molly and Amy go, before they get there, even though they leave her behind in worse condition every time. An encouraging teacher, Mrs. Fine (Jessica Williams), who is. A high school principal (Jason Sudeikis) who drives for Lyft in his spare time. Amy's parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte) are cloyingly adorable liberal (I think) Christians who accept that their daughter is a lesbian, and even support it, thinking she is involved with Molly. She isn't. There's also a serial killer who tries to talk sense to them. Early in the evening, on Jared's yacht, when Gigi doses them with some exotic drug they become Barbie dolls for a sequence and undergo other strange changes before regrouping and moving on to the next stop on the way to the party. Of course there are tender moments—it's a milestone of life, after all, high school graduation. But this movie is mostly a lot of laughs with the soundtrack turned up loud. Good stuff all around.